Reflections on the siege of Sarajevo

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ethno-nationalist politicians are the product of ethno-nationalist self-partition on the part of three groups of people, all of whom have been scarred by their wartime experiences.

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Conflict Background


By Matthew Parish

5 April 2012 marked the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo, an event recently recorded widely in the international media. This siege was a shocking period in Balkan history, and the relatives of the dead continue to suffer. They mourn every day, and official decennial remembrances cannot assuage their pain. Media blitzes are of limited use in moderating the agony of recalling lost friends. Yet remembering the past can take us only so far. The challenge facing policy makers today is the future of Sarajevo. Although the horrors of the siege are long past, the city’s destiny and the country of which it serves as the capital remain profoundly troubling.

Some 11,000 people died in the siege, the vast majority of whom were Bosniacs (Muslims). Yet by the wretched standards of the Bosnian war, the siege was not disproportionately bloody. Some 100,000 people died in the course of Bosnia’s three and a half years of conflict, and hence the siege represented perhaps 11% of all deaths. This was comparable to Sarajevo’s size as a proportion of Bosnia’s population as a whole. Statistically, Sarajevo was an averagely dangerous place to be within Bosnia during the war. By this measure, the capital was safer than Brcko, Srebrenica, Zvornik or Mostar. The reason it received disproportionate attention may have been due to the disproportionate presence in the town of western journalists bearing witness to the horrors endemic to any civil war.

In focusing on the siege, we risk neglecting the other victims of the Bosnian war. By best estimates some 65,000 Muslims, 25,000 Serbs and 8,000 Croats lost their lives in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, and each death left an indelible scar upon the war’s survivors. 100,000 anniversaries of the deaths of loved ones punctuate every day of every year, each no less painful for the recent avalanche of recollections of journalists recollecting the adrenalin rushes of their Sarajevo sojourns in the early nineties. It is proper to bear witness to such atrocities and to honour the memories of lives lost. The international media has another, however, equally important responsibility. It is also bound to serve the people living in Bosnia today, by asking how the survivors of the siege, and their descendants, might work towards a more prosperous future in which Bosnia’s contemporary economic and political miseries might be overcome. Unfortunately the task of fashioning the future is altogether more formidable than documenting the past.

In 1991 Sarajevo was a multi-ethnic city of 49% Bosniacs, 30% Serbs and 7% Croats. The vast majority of Serbs and Croats fled or were expelled in the early days of the siege or at the end of the war. Now the city is overwhelmingly Bosniac. It is also partitioned: the Inter-Entity Boundary Line, dividing the Muslim-Croat Federation from the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, runs through Sarajevo’s suburbs. One need drive a mere two minutes from the city’s airport to traverse the boundary line beyond which lie different laws, diverse national symbols, road signs in the Cyrillic script and a different people, implacably hostile to the city on their doorstep. From the surrounding hills they overlook with resentment the city shrouded by an invisible ethnic barrier, much as did the Serb snipers that terrorised the city’s population between 1992 and 1995.

The irony of Sarajevo’s contemporary division is that it is self-enforcing. There are no armed forces, as there once were, preventing safe travel across the front line. Anyone can drive or walk over the frontier at will, without showing identity documents. On paper at least, the situation is immeasurably better than that in other divided territories. Nicosia in Cyprus, the world’s only other partitioned capital city, imposes passport and security checks and the border’s opening has been the victim of the perennially shifting vaguaries of EU political pressure. Yet the people of Bosnia have no need for formalities and border guards to perpetuate their separation; they impose ethnic apartheid upon themselves. Few of Bosnia’s people feel comfortable in the territory of others, and by and large they stick with their own. On each side of Sarajevo’s imperceptible boundary, people watch different television channels, read different newspapers, argue over the merits of different politicians and worship different idols.

The notional freedom of movement and rights of refugee returns enshrined in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords have remained theoretical ever since, in practice amounting to little more than a licence for transit through the territory of others when on their way to some third place. The ethnic divisions in contemporary Bosnia are not, as the consistent international community narrative pretends, the result of intransigent politicians peddling ethno-nationalist agendas. Such an account reverses the proper direction of causation. The ethno-nationalist politicians of which foreign diplomats have grown so exhausted are the product of ethno-nationalist self-partition on the part of three groups of people, all of whom have been scarred by their wartime experiences. Fear and animosity drive Bosnians’ formidable determination not to reintegrate, even when the legal opportunities for them to do so exist.

For the western policymaker, the depth to which ethnic intransigence has permeated the mindset of the general population represents a challenge to the liberal values we would like to see Bosnia embrace upon a smooth course towards European Union membership. The simplistic temptation is to support so-called multi-ethnic politicians at the expense of those engaging nationalist sympathies and promoting miscellaneous irredentist and revanchist political philosophies. Hence the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a foreign policy arm of the US Democratic Party, channels grants to support the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a notionally multi-ethnic political party based in Sarajevo, in the hope that some of its more overtly ethnic political opponents will lose ground.

Yet this approach embodies dangers, since in the ethnically charged atmosphere of Bosnian politics the same political party may portray one message to its western supporters and another to its domestic electorate. Current Republika Srpska president, Milorad Dodik, and his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), were once perceived as an ethnically moderate Serb political movement and Dodik was catapulted to power in 1998 with western support, notwithstanding negligible levels (at the time) of domestic support. The SNSD was welcomed as a temperate alternative to the nationalist Serb Democratic Party. It was hoped that cooperation with Dodik might secure the multi-ethnic political future of which the international community so hopes that Bosnia is capable.

Once Dodik consolidated his power base, however, his tune changed dramatically. He played a clever double game, appealing to the Bosnian Serb electorate by developing an overtly secessionist political agenda for the Serb entity, while immunising himself from western political assault by repudiating association with Serb war crimes. A politician who once appeared a moderate and thereby garnered western support now holds arguably the most powerful political position in Bosnia on an unrestrained ethno-nationalist platform, much to the horror of his erstwhile supporters in Washington and Brussels.

So it is with SDP. While portraying to the West an alluring vision for a multi-ethnic Bosnia, in reality this party is overwhelmingly Bosniac and its vision entails majoritarian control of strong central government institutions which demographic arithmetic prescribes will be dominated by the country’s Bosniac plurality. This agenda is an anathema to the country’s Serb and Croat minorities and represents to a great extent the result they fought the war to avoid. The SDP turns out to have an uncompromising political agenda, inimical to the spirit of inter-ethnic compromise. Hence proposals to amend Bosnia’s unworkably complex constitution, fashioned by US lawyers in the shadow of the Dayton peace negotiations, were scuttled by SDP, the political party on which the West had previously relied to represent moderation in a new multi-ethnic Bosnia. The SDP’s objection to constitutional reform was that the reforms proposed were insufficiently radical and failed to concede enough to majoritarian rule of the kind that Serbs and Croats would never accept.

The lingering effect of horrors such as the siege of Sarajevo has been ethnic partition not just of Bosnia’s territory but also of the thinking of its people. The reason why even apparently moderate political parties, such as the SNSD and the SDP, transpire to embrace abrasive nationalist agendas is that simplistic ethnic political messages carry profound traction amongst the population of a country damaged by the social breakdown accompanying ethnic civil war. Ethnic hatreds continue to run deeply amongst Bosnians. This is not principally the fault of the country’s politicians. For the most part, those politicians react to the peoples’ fear and animus towards one-another, rather than themselves create that fear out of nothing. The country’s political and commercial elites seldom permit prejudice to erect boundaries to inter-ethnic cooperation when it suits them, as any careful observer of Bosnian politics is aware. The country’s problem lies more in the hostility the country’s ordinary people harbour for one-another, in light of the traumas they endured in the Siege of Sarajevo and elsewhere.

Sarajevo’s continuing de facto division, despite the absence of formal or legal obstacles to the remixing of its once multi-ethnic population, is testament to this uncomfortable cultural fact. Modern Sarajevo is a tragedy that represents the misfortune of Bosnia as a whole. It is a beautiful city, populated by kind and welcoming people who divide themselves into ghettos of their own free will. The cause of this acrimony, amidst the sufferings and memories of the siege, is comprehensible to all but the meanest of spirit. The enduring enmity between Bosnia’s three peoples, however, does not bode well for the country’s future. Unless a country’s capital, populated by its most liberal, educated and cosmopolitan classes, can serve as an exemplar to Bosnia’s inhabitants, it is hard to see how we can expect the rest of Bosnia’s citizens to follow suit.

Matthew Parish is a partner with the international law firm Holman Fenwick Willan in Geneva. He was formerly the Chief Legal Advisor to the International Supervisor of Brcko. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs.

His first book, ‘A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia, is published by I.B.Tauris, and his second book, ‘Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order, is published by Edward Elgar. His third book, ‘Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law’, will be published by Edward Elgar in 2012.

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