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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

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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