In the summer of 1992 I was a happy and carefree 13 year old. I spent long and sunny days playing with my friends. I cheered loudly when Andre Agassi beat a little-known Croatian player, to claim the Wimbledon title.
I had nothing to worry about.
The evening news reports were full of words that meant nothing to me: Serb, Croat, Bosniak, Muslim; and places called Belgrade and Sarajevo. Bombs were dropping, gunfire was heard, but to me it was far, far away.
It did not occur to me that this was Europe.
This was my continent, in my lifetime.
And it was fighting a base and bloody war, in a way that had not been seen since Hitler wreaked destruction across Europe in the 1940s.
Before this trip my knowledge of the conflict across the former Yugoslavia was patchy at best, so when I reached Serbia I was keen to find out more.
I joined the free walking tour. It was not a tour to talk about communism or the war—there is a paid tour if you want to do that—but the twenty-something girl who showed us around talked a little about the troubles. She showed us a bank note with 11 zeros. She told us tales of rationing and people queuing for hours for bread, only to find that their wages had become completely worthless since they joined the line. She painted a sorry picture of suffering and hardship.
But one thing she made very clear: Serbia was a victim.
She pointed out a bridge and told us about the famous ‘bridge parties’ when the people of Belgrade would gather on the bridge in defiance of the bombers. She didn’t mention that the bombers were NATO bombers, or why they were bombing Belgrade. She did not take us to the two bombed out buildings, victims of a NATO strike.
Perhaps she did not want to answer difficult questions.
Instead, she led us on a tour of popular drinking establishments and told us about Belgrade’s reputation as a party capital—the way modern Belgrade has rebranded itself.
When I reached Sarajevo in Bosnia it was far more picturesque than I had imagined. I heard the same stories: currency that was worthless, rationing, and long lines of people queuing for bread and water.
Yes, it was the same story, but this time the tyrant was not NATO, the tyrant was Serbia. Belgrade, the friendly, courageous city I had visited only a day earlier was the enemy.
It was Serbian soldiers that surrounded the city. It was Serbian snipers who shot at people as they waited for bread. It was Serbian bombs that exploded in the streets, ripping up cobbled stones and tearing families apart.
Nothing was safe. Nothing was sacred.
Mourning families attended funerals for their loved ones by cover of night, as funerals were a favourite target of the snipers’ bullets.
For an incredible four years the United Nations looked on, refusing to allow the Bosnians weapons with which to defend themselves, and escorting those who escaped across the dangerous airport runway back into the city—which had effectively become a concentration camp. After initially looking to them for help, crushed Sarajevans branded them the ‘Useless Nations’.
It didn’t take long for Sarajevo to realise that it was completely alone. The world watched on, horrified, but unable to help.
Sarajevo is still picking up the pieces. Evidence of the war can be found around the city in the form of ‘Sarajevo Roses’, although many of these are being filled in after becoming too much of a tourist attraction.
Less easy to conceal are the vast numbers of casualties denoted by white markers filling numerous cemeteries across the city. These mark the graves of soldiers who fell in conflict. There are simply far too many graves for any one city to ever accommodate. The dates on all the markers are between 1992-1995, and the age of the victims heartbreakingly young.
The two cities couldn’t be more different in their attitude towards the conflict—Belgrade quick to play the victim card, and Sarajevo quietly rebuilding its shattered city.
Due to the complex nature of the war in former Yugoslavia it is hard to definitively label victim and perpetrator, and laying blame on the current generation is pointless. Each of the countries committed gross atrocities towards the others, and as with all wars, the civilians of both countries were completely at the mercy of warring governments. They were the ones who suffered, and they are the ones who paid the ultimate price.
Have you visited Bosnia or Serbia? How do you view the differences between them? If you haven’t visited, do you want to? Please leave your comments below.