Barricades at Dawn: Watching the Siege of Sarajevo Begin

Bosnian soldiers on alert after Serb sniper fire in Sarajevo on April 6, 1992. Photo: EPA/MIKE PERSSON.

Barricades at Dawn: Watching the Siege of Sarajevo Begin

5. April 2022.12:45
5. April 2022.12:45
When the first barricades went up in Sarajevo amid a dispute over Bosnia’s independence referendum, few thought war would start – but by April 1992, the 44-month siege of the city was underway, recalls Marcus Tanner, who witnessed the escalating conflict.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

It was the morning after the February 29-March 1 1992 independence referendum in Bosnia and Herzegovina – an event that a well-known BBC journalist had described to me, sipping a beer, as “good news at last from the Balkans”.

Like most centre-left British journalists, he seemed to disapprove of the previous year’s war of Croatian independence – too nationalistic, too ethnic. And wasn’t it all saturated in a now deeply unfashionable Catholicism?

So why was Bosnia’s independence so different, such “good news”, I asked? He pointed at a referendum poster on a wall. “It’s written in Serbian Cyrillic as well,” he explained. “It’s inclusive”.

I wanted to laugh. The politics of London translated to the Balkans via an “inclusive” poster! I’d been in Belgrade since 1988, reporting for the Independent newspaper, and I had watched the continuing rise of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the expansionist Serbian nationalism he channelled and championed.

I knew enough about Milosevic, and about the mood in Serbia, to know that posters written in “inclusive” Cyrillic letters were not going to persuade the Serbs to just let go of Bosnia – not after what I’d seen in Croatia, a country home to a far smaller Serb community.

There were at least 1.5 million Serbs in Bosnia and I’d met their leaders, from Radovan Karadzic to the faux-scholarly Nikola Koljevic and the schoolteacherish Biljana Plavsic. I’d been struck by their conviction and intransigence.

Karadzic had lectured me standing in front of a huge map of Bosnia with a long pole, pointing to all the bits that belonged to the Serbs, which seemed to be almost everything, except Medjugorje.

Koljevic had lectured me in drawling Oxford-ish English about the historic difference between “real” and “silken”, or svilani Serbs – who had toadied up to the Ottomans in the old days and were toadying up to the Bosnian Muslim establishment now. Plavsic had told me that the Bosnian Muslims didn’t need much space in Bosnia. “Oriental” peoples “like living on top of each other”, she said.

Still, that night, what was about to happen in Bosnia was not clear to me, either.

I found out the morning after the referendum while shaving in my hotel bathroom. My colleague from British newspaper the Observer knocked at my door. “Forget breakfast,” she said, casually. “There’s a siege.”

I raised an eyebrow but said nothing. This was clearly a joke; she knew how much I liked my fried breakfast. In any case, a siege? When had Europe last seen a real siege? The word in my mind evoked a famous Monty Python comedy sketch, plus medieval images of lumbering siege engines, high ladders, knights clanking around in metal armour and buckets of boiling oil being hurled from castle parapets.

We went down to the reception. Nobody was there. Total silence. No other guests and no staff whatever. Kitchen empty. No rattling coffee cups or sizzling eggs and bacon on the hob. My eyes widened. Where was everybody? “I told you,” my colleague sniggered. “Nobody can get in because the city is under a siege!”

She’d been out early. She’d seen what was going on. We strolled out of the hotel, and she guided me a few hundred metres towards what, unmistakably, was a makeshift barricade.

So, there was a kind of siege. But I didn’t feel frightened – not yet – just baffled. The whole thing had an amateur, not-quite-serious air. We strolled right up to the tangled mess of barbed wire and wood and even called out to some Bosnian Serbs shuffling around on the other side. I wasn’t totally sure they knew what was going on either.

The barricades came down a few days later. Soon after, I went back to Belgrade, where I was living at the time. Was the worst over? I hoped so. Of course, it wasn’t. That makeshift siege had been a trial run and a test – Karadzic’s way of warning the country that he could throttle the Bosnian capital, if he chose to.

By the time I came back to Sarajevo, in April, the situation was a whole lot worse. Then there was no turning back. War had started.

‘You had to hope neither side blew you to pieces’

Bosnian fighters patrol the streets of Sarajevo on April 7, 1992. Photo: EPA/MIKE PERSSON.

The Yugoslav government and the Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadzic opposed independence for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and wanted it to remain under Belgrade’s control. Sarajevo was initially blockaded by the Yugoslav People’s Army, then besieged from April 5, 1992, to February 29, 1996, by the Bosnian Serb Army, which targeted the city with a 44-month campaign of shelling and sniper attacks. Marcus Tanner returned to a city where life had changed completely.

Two people called me before I realised I had to get back into Sarajevo. One was a sort-of-friend who phoned – the landlines were still up – to tell me she and her parents were getting seriously hungry. Barely any UN aid had got into the Bosnian capital at that point, in the late spring of 1992, since April. Most of it was incredibly bland. My friend told me later they’d been getting by on bread, jam and chicken paste and her mother was starting to reject it. She wouldn’t go into the basement during bombing raids, either. “She prefers staying in the bathroom to pray,” she said.

The other call came from a Bosnian journalist I’d met only once but who’d got my number. His message was even more alarming. He told me he was lying on the floor of his apartment in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja and peeking out of the window. He could see the Bosnian Serb soldiers entering one of apartment blocks in Dobrinja and taking people out. I didn’t ask where he thought these people were going to. I just asked what number block the Serbs had got into. “Dobrinja 1,” he said. “And you’re in?” “Dobrinja IV,” he came back.

I couldn’t just forget about it and stay in Belgrade, where I’d been based since 1988. I had to get back into Sarajevo. I’d had been there a lot for the independence referendum in March and during the first half of April. But now the fighting was just out of control and it was not late June. The UN air bridge to the city wouldn’t open until July 1992. At this stage it was still car or nothing. But I’d been told that now involved driving to the edge of the airport runway, which the Bosnian Serbs controlled, and then driving into the arms, or bullets, of the Bosnian Army at the other end. You just had to hope neither side blew you to pieces.

First stop, find a driver at the Belgrade International Press Centre on Knez Mihailova, notorious haunt not only of drunken journalists but also of all sorts of ne’er-do-wells, underworld types, money changers and double agents. A local fixer soon introduced me to a “Belgrade housewife” who apparently wanted to go see if her husband in Sarajevo was still all right. She looked amazingly lean and fit and was not conversational. But she was willing to drive me through Serb-held eastern Bosnia to Sarajevo for a stiff but affordable price. We would set off the next day.

Next stop, shops. We were going to cross Bosnian Serb territory into Bosniak-held Sarajevo, which meant crossing a front line. The Bosnian Serbs did not want food, or much else, getting into the besieged city. Plus, my friend and her ailing mother were Muslims, secular, but Muslims nevertheless. Pork and bacon were out. I choose a big wheel of hard cheese, dried beef sausages, herbs, coffee, dried milk, dried fruit, bars of chocolate and other imperishable goods. How to stop the Serbs from spotting what I was bringing in? I decided to take a huge rucksack and fill the top half with filthy T-shirts and socks and hope the guards didn’t explore to the bottom.

We set off the next morning to Sarajevo. My “housewife” driver went at about a hundred miles an hour round the steepest curves in hilly eastern Bosnia. She seemed very familiar with the route. Even more curiously, she seemed to know half the people at the Bosnian Serb checkpoints already. They nodded her through with smiles and winks and ignored me. I tried striking up a chat about her Bosnian husband stuck in Sarajevo, but she didn’t do small talk.

We got to the far end of the runway of Sarajevo airport. My ruse with the food was a success. Some Bosnian Serb women looked into my rucksack, wrinkled their noses in disgust at the sight and smell, and left it at that. Now came a bigger test. We had to cross from the Bosnian Serb sector of the runway to the Bosniak sector, at the other end.

How were the Bosnian Army supposed to know we are friendly, if we drive right at them at full throttle? No idea, but my driver looks unfazed, switches into top gear and drives at breakneck speed towards the other end. At one point I hear the high-pitched swishing sound of bullets whizzing past somewhere. Coming from our rear, or from the front? I can’t tell. But whoever is firing clearly doesn’t hit our car as we reach the other end, intact. We were in Sarajevo. My driver vanished in an instant, no goodbye, no offers of a lift back. I didn’t see or hear of her again and never got to the bottom of her real mission. I doubt it involved a lonely husband.

First stop, UN peacekeepers’ headquarters at Lukavica, to alert them to the plight of my journalist contact in Dobrinja. I’m nonplussed to find the UN camping cheek-by-jowl with the Bosnian Serb Army. Can this be right? But I’m shown to a room where I meet two officers, one Polish, one French. I explain about what my contact has seen in Dobrinje, of Bosnian Serbs capturing the blocks, one by one, and taking people away.

The French officer listens gravely and seems to take it in. I pause for his response, hoping he will promise to go and check it out. “Do you know what it is like to be a Christian in a Muslim country?” he asks after a minute. “Eh?” Confusion. What’s he talking about? “Can you imagine celebrating Easter in, say, Saudi Arabia?” he continues. It goes on in this vein.

I know, suddenly, that I will get nowhere. This French officer couldn’t care cares less what is happening in Dobrinja. He has no interest in Bosnia. This is just another job, and he’s come armed with hardened prejudices about what Muslims are like – everywhere. Clearly, his sympathies lie with the Bosnian Serbs – “Christians”, like him. I leave stunned, and dismayed on behalf of the journalist I thought I could help.

‘Now, the city was a different place’

The funeral of a Bosnian killed by Serb mortar fire in Sarajevo on April 9, 1992. Photo: EPA/MIKE PERSSON.

Some time later, I get to Dobrinja. It hasn’t fallen. On the contrary, they’ve built an ingenious network of tunnels and trenches to enable them to move around below ground level and not be targeted by Bosnian Serb snipers. My journalist contact has gone, I don’t know where. But he wasn’t abducted, it seems, and others have stayed. Their morale is incredible.

Meantime, I have to find my hungry friend and hope I succeed at least in that part of my mission. In Sarajevo in March and April, you could walk up to makeshift barricades and sometimes even chat with the Bosnian Serbs on the other side. War was in the air, a reality in parts of Bosnia, but it hadn’t hit Sarajevo with its full force.

Now, the city was a different place. Massive shelling has burned down and destroyed many buildings and there’s no walking up to the frontlines and chatting. I notice that people’s complexions have changed. They bleached out, become whiter, for lack of fresh food. They’re thinner now. They dart across the roads at intersections to avoid being sniped at by the Bosnian Serbs in the nearby hills. Running is part of life under siege.

The Old City, with its narrow streets, seems by far the safest area. The rest of the city is a disaster for the inhabitants, in terms of resisting a siege. Sarajevo is not round shaped, like most cities. It is long and narrow, stretched out along a valley surrounded by hills that they do not control.

The post-war city was built along this valley in a grid pattern, with wide, straight boulevards – perfect for the Bosnian Serbs stationed in the surrounding hills to see right down those boulevards. Trams ran a gauntlet, windows pockmarked with bullet holes. So do pedestrians crossing those wide roads, unless they can use an underpass.

Even the Old City isn’t that safe. The Bosnian Serbs have a crucial foothold in Grbavica, from where their snipers can easily see the Holiday Inn, the only berth now for visiting journalists. When I’d stayed there only weeks ago it was still a functional international-grade hotel, the showpiece of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Between then and now, one of the wings of the hotel has been blown off, giving it a jagged, frontline air.

Room sorted, I locate my friends in a block halfway between the Old City and the new town, a modern high-rise – exposed, but not as exposed as some. When I reach the apartment with my rucksack of goodies, there is amazement and tears. Middle-class Sarajevans, it seems, are faring worst of all in this siege.

The old urban social hierarchy has been upended and reversed. They are not tough enough to muscle their way into the street gangs that have taken control of smuggling networks. The intellectual class, the university types, the clerks, has fallen on hard times. Their academic credentials count for nothing now.

There are delicacies to be found in besieged Sarajevo, even now, at the markets. Eggs, chocolate, whisky and forlorn bunches of vegetables all fall into the ‘luxury’ category. They become more available as the UN air bridge gets going that summer – and as the aid falls not only into the hands of those in need but into the hands of the gangs, to be sold off. But the prices are extortionate. My friend and her parents are staggered to be in possession of a cornucopia of beef sausages, dried fruit, chocolate bars, herbs – and that big fat wheel of dried cheese.

I remember thinking that, had I been in their place, I would have stored all that stuff very carefully in a padlocked cupboard. But they want to share their good fortune. My friend goes down the stairway and bangs on doors and gives away all the chocolate to the kids in the flats, and does the same with the dried fruit. The kids jump up and down, their parents smiling. A small but good thing had happened that day. I’m too moved to speak.

I went back to Sarajevo many times over the next few years of the siege. It became routine. The frontlines stabilised, and so did the UN airbridge. We got used to bracing for the stomach-churning descent, as the military plane plunged down to the airport when we make for the city in a UN armoured personnel carrier. We no longer notice the blown-off wing of the Holiday Inn. I leave Yugoslavia, now a state in the past tense, before the war ends.

My friend also left Bosnia, soon after the siege ended in 1995. She did very well in the States. I’ve seen her on Facebook. Her mother has probably passed by now. Her dad never made it out. The Bosnian Serbs would close off the water in Sarajevo once in a while and force people to wait in line at the street pumps, where they were exposed.

He died that way, one of the many victims of the siege, shot while standing in line with his water bucket.

Marcus Tanner

This post is also available in: Bosnian