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Sarajevo: The Siege Within

Sarajevo during the siege - flickr-blogdroed
Sarajevo during the siege. Photo: flickr/blogdroed

One of the most sensitive topics concerning the Bosnian war is the question of the so-called "siege within the siege" of Sarajevo. The issues involved relate to the extent to which the Bosnian government, during the war of 1992 to 1995, allowed criminal elements to prosper in exchange for using their muscle on the frontlines, how well placed individuals became rich thanks to smuggling and stealing aid and how complicit were corrupt UN officials and soldiers in black marketeering. Also, to what extent did Sarajevans suffer even more than they had to thanks to a deliberate policy of making their lives even worse than they needed to be, in order to maintain international sympathy for the city and the country? To our knowledge Peter Andreas, an academic at Brown University, whose book on the siege was published in 2008, is the only author to examine all of these issues in a comprehensive fashion and his book makes for fascinating reading. The extracts we have chosen here relate to the question of water. As most water supplies came from outside the city it is not surprising, writes Andreas, that access was "drastically curtailed" once the war began.

What was a surprise was that water access was also impeded from within. Nothing symbolized the city's miserable existence more than the image of exhausted Sarajevans carrying plastic jugs of water while braving Serb sniper fire and mortar attacks. Hundreds of city residents were killed or injured while engaging in the endless pursuit of water.

In 1993 Fred Cuny, an American disaster relief expert, launched a project to set up an emergency water treatment system in the city. It was backed by the philanthropist George Soros and the International Rescue Committee. It was a huge project and involved flying two massive water treatment systems into the city. The project was sheltered in a road tunnel and ready by the end of the year. But, "to Cuny's great surprise and dismay, the Sarajevo government proved to be more of an obstacle than the Serb authorities. City officials refused to give approval to turn the system on, arguing that the water was unsafe to drink." Cuny had the water tested in Croatia, by the World Health Organisation and by US Army bioenvironmental engineers who all concluded the water was safe, but the Bosnian authorities would not budge. He turned the system on, they turned it off again. George Soros appealed to Haris Silajdzic, then the Bosnian prime minister and visited Alija Izetbegovic, the president, to appeal to them to let the water flow. "The delays nevertheless persisted."

There are a number of potential explanations involving both front-stage and backstage dynamics for the Sarajevo government's unexpected obstructionism. A cynical front-stage explanation is that Bosnian government officials resisted and delayed turning on the taps because the globally televised images of the desperate and dangerous quests for water by ordinary Sarajevans would disappear and such heart-wrenching imagery was an important public relations tool in maintaining international sympathy and support. A plausible backstage explanation is that turning on the taps would remove a source of black market revenue. As the Washington Post reported, "Government agencies that trucked water to dry parts of the city received a fuel allocation, part of which they sold on the black market for $100 a gallon. If water started flowing through the taps, the lucrative fuel allocation would dry up. " The aid workers John Fawcett and Victor Tanner, who were closely involved in the water treatment project, also point to other speculative but plausible backstage explanations. First, "there were portions of the city administration involved in selling water from the Brewery and they saw the plant as undercutting their business." Second, the Brewery was receiving diesel fuel from the UN in order to run pumps pulling up water from its deep wells. It was rumoured that as the monitoring of this diesel was so weak, that the Bosnian government was using some of it to run machinery to produce weapons."

Finally, under international pressure, the Sarajevo authorities allowed the water to flow at minimum capacity and only in April 1995 at full capacity. Those who had blocked the project then tried "to project the impression that they had supported it all along."

Blue Helmets and Black Markets: The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo. Peter Andreas. 2008.
[pp. 101-103 / Cornell University Press]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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