Bosnia marks 20 years of the beginning of its war

Published April 6, 2012 5:09AM (EDT)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Exactly 11,541 red chairs have been lined up in rows along Sarajevo's main street — one for every man, woman and child killed in the siege that ended up being the longest in modern history.

Sarajevo on Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war. Exhibitions, concerts and performances are being held, but nothing can match the impact of hundreds of rows of red in the same square where it all started on April 6, 1992.

Hundreds of the chairs are small, representing the slain children.

"This city needs to stop for a moment and pay tribute to its killed citizens," said Haris Pasovic, organizer of the "Sarajevo Red Line."

The Serb siege of Sarajevo went on for 44 months — 11,825 days — longer than the World War II siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. Its 380,000 people were left without electricity, water or heat, hiding from the 330 shells a day that smashed into the city.

On that fateful day in 1992, some 40,000 people from all over the country — Muslim Bosniaks, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats — poured into the square to demand peace from their quarreling nationalist politicians.

The European Community had recognized the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia as an independent state after most of its people voted for independence. But the vote went down along ethnic lines, with Bosniaks and Croats voting for independence, and Bosnian Serbs preferring to stay with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.

The ethnic unity being displayed on the Sarajevo square irritated Serb nationalists, who then shot into the crowd from a nearby hotel, killing five people and igniting the 1992-1995 war.

The Serb nationalists, helped by neighboring Serbia, laid siege to Sarajevo and within a few months occupied 70 percent of Bosnia, expelling all non-Serbs from territory they controlled.

Meanwhile Bosniaks and Croats — who started off as allies — turned against each other, so all three groups ended up fighting a war that took over 100,000 lives, made half of the population homeless and left the once-ethnically mixed country devastated and divided into mono-ethnic enclaves.

A 1995 peace agreement brokered by the United States ended the shooting but its compromises left the nation ethnically divided into two ministates — one for Serbs, the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats — linked by a central government.

The result is a bureaucratic monstrosity: Bosnia has three rotating presidents at the state level and each ministate has its own president — that's five presidents in all. There are overall 13 prime ministers, over 130 ministers, more than 760 lawmakers and 148 municipalities.

Not only does this cost the impoverished nation of 3.5 million over 50 percent of its annual GDP but it leads to endless bickering between institutions.

It's a dysfunctional system that must be simplified if Bosnia wants to achieve its goal of joining the 27-nation European Union. Brussels insists Bosnia must be more centralized but that goes against Serbs' desire to maintain their autonomy. Croats insist on their own little ministate instead of sharing one with the Bosniaks and the Bosniaks want a unified country.

In fact, everybody wants what they wanted back in 1992. So Bosnia today is not at war but certainly not at peace.

Bogdan Vukadin was one of those Serb soldiers firing from the mountains on Sarajevo during the war.

"We did not fight this war for nothing," he says. "We have our Serb Republic, we have our government, we have our president, we have our own institutions."

Ethnic mistrust or economic differences between the ministates are keeping the groups in Bosnia separated. Children in school are learning three different version of history, calling their common language by three different names — Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian — and are growing isolated from each other in monoethnic enclaves.

Foreign investors — the only hope for the country's economy — are avoiding Bosnia for its political instability and its enormous bureaucracy.

The pressure to join the EU has united some of the country's institutions. Bosnia now has a common currency, a central bank, its two ministate police forces are run by a joint ministry. There is a state court, border police on state level and even a joint army — melded from the three that once fought each other.

Now those same soldiers from all three armies are united, protesting together over a lack of retirement pay and jobs in the same central Sarajevo square. Dressed in old uniforms, exhausted and unshaved, Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats sleep and eat at this doomed square, occasionally shouting up to nearby government offices "Thieves, thieves!"

The former soldiers say they are here to defend Bosnia from lying politicians. Many of them were only 17 in 1992 when the ethnically mixed crowd gathered to demand peace but was cheated.

"We will be here together till the end, demanding our rights," said Milomir Saric, a Bosnian Serb veteran.

By Salon Staff

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