Tag Archives: war

Twenty: Remembering the Siege of Sarajevo

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On today’s date in 1945, Partisans liberated Sarajevo from fascism. On the same date in 1992, Sarajevo was attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army and the Army of Republika Srpska and this became the longest siege of a city in modern military history.  Although the war was complex, and allies sometimes became enemies depending on the place of fighting, my intention here is not to clarify or simplify the complexities, but rather to share some of my thoughts on the siege of Sarajevo, twenty years after it started.

Today, in a personal narrative, I remember the aggression on my hometown and the capital city of my country. Next year again, this will repeat: with one side remembering, and the other pretending that the sound of death was just firecrackers in the distant mountains.

As I prepared to write this, I had several objections from older people who refused to engage in any discussion about the past. Denial was rampant, and arguments ended with weak commentary about young people not knowing anything, our place not being in politics, and general logical fallacies.

My story, incomplete and fragmented

I was young when the war started and I remember seeing protests on television and asked my parents what was happening. “Nothing” was the answer, but I recall clearly that something was wrong and very soon after, my mom, my sister and I had to leave Sarajevo while my dad stayed behind. I trivially remember wearing turquoise sweatpants. There were times where my mom did not eat so that we could. She looked nearly anorexic, but her strength was that of Samson (even though she cut her hair). We had no idea where my dad was or if he was alive. We had no light or heating, and my mom’s resourcefulness continues to amaze me to this day.

I ran around the neighborhood with my cousin, collecting various sizes of shell casings – we found one that was as big as we were, but we were excited that this large shiny object was now in our possession. Our mothers would tell us, don’t go into any [abandoned, looted] houses, there are snipers everywhere! But we went anyway, we were curious to see what was in people’s homes. The doors were open and the howling of the wind added to the strangeness of abandoned homes of our neighbors.  We collected colorful paper napkins, and once we saw a soldier who rudely told us to leave. I don’t know where he was aiming his weapon, but I am certain that the adult me would have asked him what he was doing and asked him to leave. My mother would say again, don’t get involved!

I remember only a short period in the first grade in my hometown and then we moved to a new place. We moved again, and again, and again, and I lost count. I started a new school, and that was going to be my life for seven years. I moved between borders, places, ideas, hyphens, and labels. Refugee. Internally displaced. Victim. Newcomer. Immigrant.

I am still trying to find words to express the strange and empty feeling of being an adult woman, learning about my hometown years after I had to leave, asking other newcomers where streets and famous landmarks are. There are places I should know, the essentialization and homogenization of Sarajevan citizenship say that I must innately feel some sort of a spirit, or soul of the city. But I only hear different dialects, people complaining about newcomers, ex-patriates eagerly awaiting to eat their portion of ćevapi and speaking languages of their new homelands. Sometimes, when I’m alone in my thoughts, I think, do they know? Can they hear my differences?

I don’t even remember the exact story of our exodus other than what my parents and neighbours have told me, but even they don’t like talking about it. I remain curious and I continue to ask questions. My mom warned me to not get myself killed by asking around too much, but what am I supposed to do? Silence is not an option and neither is forgetting.  A child never understands the complexity of war, but a child can feel that something around him or her is wrong and can empathize with people experiencing pain and tragedy. A child with a difficult past reflects as an adult, and for some people like myself, war has become an important theme. While I refused to let it define me, its impact was significant enough that the only logical option now seems to learn more, to ask, to understand.

Why else would people be saying never forget and never again, or do we casually enjoy clichés?

The painful part of my history is veiled by a wall of fog and fear, where those with clearer memories refuse to talk and I am left to invent new ways to question them without them noticing. I jump around the subject, hoping to find a transparent window, maybe someone will tell me or maybe even draw pictures. I will take pictures too, I will take anything that makes sense. And I seem to be seeing a manipulation of facts and history, and emotions taking place of serious inquiry and investigation as far as the media is concerned.

I think, maybe if I ask a question this way, they won’t notice and they won’t die without telling me what happened. I have to know. I want to know. As I reconstruct the past, I remember stories from others, I remember the cries of women who lost their husbands, boyfriends, brothers, sons, and I remember the hypocrisy of apparently God-fearing war profiteers and criminals in our hometown and in other parts of the country. I am told not to speak about that either – they continue to prosper, by the way. They hold positions in all levels of government and their children live in privilege unknown to most young people in Sarajevo. Here, I am reminded by the words of Seneca the Younger: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

I reflect on other people’s stories, and somewhere between those stories, there is fear, hate, resentment, and the silence which veils the truth. I eagerly listen when someone tells me their story, and sometimes I rehearse the questions in my head – I want the stories, but I want to ask questions carefully, respectful of individual history and memory and its place in the collective memories of our peoples.

Silence and denial

Since we were children, the stories and fairy tales always had a moral message, with a mandatory fight between good and evil. I suppose during the war, they wanted to surprise us and have the evil win, to keep us on our toes. There was a clear distinction between the villain and the hero, the winner and the loser. But there are also attempts to erase history, to equate the aggressor and the victim, a clear barrier to justice and reconciliation. Ethnically cleansed areas and party control of media sources with no journalistic integrity are yet another barrier to peace and reconciliation. Even Hollywood stereotypes us, romanticizes our experiences as something that happened in an exotic part of the world.

I am however not angry at Serbs as a group of people, I am not angry at Croats as a group of people, I am not angry at Bosniaks as a group of people. The war happened and the real truth will likely always remain hidden because there are people who want to keep it hidden and soon, those who know it will die, and we will create and recreate the truth, and we will continue doing so until people have justice, until there is a sense of catharsis. I have to remind my friends that the aggressor is not the same as the victim and that the aggressor also killed his own in the process of destruction. I am however disappointed in individuals who refuse to accept that evil was done in their name and that many refuse to critically examine the information which they were spoon-fed for years without alternative viewpoints. The anti-intellectualism of some individuals, parties, and professionals is so concerning, that I have to remind myself to breathe, that the future generations  will understand that (for example) Croatia’s crimes in Jasenovac are not a justification for Srebrenica or any other war crime, that an eye for an eye will be a forgotten model of “justice”

I am disappointed in people like the award-winning filmmaker Emir Kusturica who continues to use his visibility for spreading hatred and ignorance. Today, Sarajevo is displaying 11 541 empty red chairs to commemorate the victims of the Sarajevo siege and it seems that they were made in Serbia. He decided to use this opportunity to post on Facebook: “In Sarajevo, there is a day of red chairs. I guess we can use this as an opportunity to say “buy local’ “. In this case, local refers to Serbian, since the chairs were made in Serbia, and as of a few years ago, he started identifying as a Serb, because he discovered that his Muslim family was once Serb but converted to Islam during the Ottoman colonization. Not only is he ignoring the meaning of this day and the symbolism of the red chairs, he is also mocking the thousands who perished in this aggression and those who are living today and whose lives were impacted by it. The President of Bosnia’s entity Republika Srpska also refuses to commemorate this day and denies genocide completely, and a writer for a newspaper Glas Srpske, Svjetlana Tadić refers to the siege of Sarajevo as “so-called siege”. She asks how come there was a siege , if from the 160,000 Serbs, only 6000 are left, while ignoring the role of Serb forces also killing their own people and directly or indirectly forcing their relocation, including the existence of East Sarajevo (which is not even the eastern part of the city). Her post was shared over 2800 times at the time of this blog post, and amidst general denial of atrocities, she ends her piece by saying that everyone who had a soul left, and now there are only people without a soul living there.  In Belgrade, a feminist group Women in Black (Žene u crnom) remembered the aggression and reminded people that this indeed was an aggression, and not a civil war.

Red Chairs in Sarajevo, author unknown


The radicalization and polarization of the political space remains a concerning factor and probably the largest barrier to a sustainable peace other than economic development. As long as the national discourse is shaped in the absence of citizens and as long as their voices are discouraged and silenced, there will be no sustainable peace.  Please remember Sarajevo, remember Bosnia-Herzegovina. Speak out against war, speak out against injustice and don’t allow a vocal ignorant minority to dominate the public space and ruin people’s lives and futures.

Author’s note:

Please share your stories with me. Connect with me via hello [at] thepeaceblog.org, I would love to hear your views and understanding of the war in Bosnia. You can write to me in English, French or Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian. Thanks for reading. See you soon in Sarajevo.


In Which I Meet a Nobel Prize Winner

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Leymah Gbowee

“The world is upside down; your society is upside down—it’s time to turn it right-side up.”  

It might be ironic to some that these words were uttered by a woman from a country which was ravaged by civil war from 1989-1996 and then again from 1999-2003–and stranger still that these words were directed toward the West and the United States specifically. Ironic indeed, that this country is that of Liberia, the very creation of which is quite solidly linked with the United States — Liberia was mostly colonized by freed slaves from the U.S., and the structure of its government was inspired by that of the United States’.

Irony, I’ve found, has its uses. The woman who spoke these words had a captive audience, riveted to her words. She is a formidable lady and a phenomenal speaker, and I had intended to hear her talk about her book (which is quite an amazing read). The course of events that day shifted in perspective when I awoke to check my email that morning: the woman who I was planning to hear that day had just been announced as one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Leymah Gbowee, it would seem, was quite a popular person.

She’s the type of woman who would shrug this off, and I found myself – along with many others – entranced and amused by her candidness, and hanging onto her every word. She is by no means alone in the world for the work she has done, promoting peace in Liberia and the world around us. She is the subject of Abigail Disney’s riveting documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, along with many other amazing women, named and unnamed who relentlessly strove for peace in the war-torn country. (Sidenote: this documentary was featured in the U.S. as part of a five piece series called “Women, War & Peace”. Please do check out the links and episodes!) She is a relentless organizer, and formidable enough that she earned the nickname “General Leymah” for organizing her ‘troops’ — hundreds upon hundreds of women in Liberia who repeatedly stood in rallying for peace, calling for then-president Charles Taylor to go to negotiations in Ghana, talk with the leaders of rebel groups, and seek peace for Liberia.

It has been a long journey, for both Leymah and Liberia. The country has finally escaped from the dismal grip of warfare, and elected Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the second of the trio of women to win the Nobel Peace Prize this last year — she, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, another peace activist). Leymah’s own life has not been the easiest or most glamorous – hardly that. (You can read more about it in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers – quite an excellent read.) Her latest undertaking is heading up Liberia’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, to deal with the stories and reports of what happened during the war.

And so it was with much excitement that I headed over to upper eastside of Manhattan that October morning, arriving early to the Interchurch Center near Columbia University and finding a close seat. I spied a friend of mine, Susan, and sat with her and her friend. Susan was keen to hear Leymah speak, as she herself had lived in Liberia in the 1990s as a mission worker with the Episcopal Church. She met her husband there, actually–David was an aid worker in Liberia at the time, but both of them were forced to leave due to the civil war. I smiled as Susan was happily caught up to speed about the morning’s turn of events — that we would be hearing not just an author and peace activist, but a Nobel laureate at that. Susan in turn informed her friend of my own activities — not a week before I had been arrested at a protest in New York City, a controversial mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge October 1st. (Don’t you worry; blog about that to come soon enough). Amusingly enough, at one point later in Leymah’s talk, Susan and her friend pointedly glanced over at me — I was busy snapping photos and jotting down quotes, and Leymah looked out over the crowd and stated firmly: “Libya has activists, Liberia has activists; what they lack is resources. The U.S. has resources, and lack activists.”

Nina and Leymah Gbowee

Nina and Leymah Gbowee

I had a chance to hear Leymah speak again in New York City a couple of months later, and even spoke with her for a few minutes. But it was the comments I noted down from her thoughts in October (the link is given in the above paragraph) that stuck with me the most, and I would like to share a few of them with you all.

  • “We wanted to do justice in our communities; we didn’t set out to conquer the world, but transform our societies.”
  • “[People are] going to Uganda to teach kids to read when down the street in the Bronx, children don’t know how to read.”
  • “[Peace comes from] tearing down all the walls of division and coming to the place…worth looking at…[we must] tear down the walls of demonizing the other.”
  • “No matter how comfortable we are, things we do affect people adversely.”
  • “[The] problem of the world is the world’s problem because one day the world’s problem will be at the doorstep…[we must] bring discussion to the doorstep.”
  • “Bring it home; touch their daughters, sisters, mothers.”
  • “[There is] nothing comfortable about the objectification of young people in media as sex objects, rape victims or beaten women…the media is killing your young people.”
  • “No way in the world that violence has ever solved any problems.”
  • “When people decide to ignore intelligence of a whole  continent and conduct their own business, something is wrong”
  • “Use local experiences for global peace.”

There are a number of topics, and sentences I could have made in which to incorporate these quotes, but they inspire me enough by themselves that I wanted to share them with you as they were. I also invite you to listen to her speech in its entirety in the Youtube link given earlier. I am ever inspired to have heard such a woman speak in person twice, and to have had the pleasure to have met her. She has inspired me to persevere in this task of peacebuilding, peace-seeking, and to not give it up. I am thankful for her and the countless other women and men, known and unknown, who fervently strive for such great things. May we all be so inspired. ~ Nina