Back 21 - Next 

The Defense of Human Dignity

Vrelo Bosna springs - Copyright © by Alan Grant

"The war in Sarajevo," writes Donia, "was a struggle between well-armed VRS [Bosnian Serb Army] and the well-manned ARBiH [Bosnian Army]" It dragged on from the spring of 1992 until the end of 1995. Much of Donia's work on this tragic period was informed by the meticulous work he did on it for the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Wartime reports by most Sarajevo-based Western journalists and visitors to the city frequently relegated ARBiH military operations to an informational black hole. ARBiH military operations were typically shrouded in secrecy and conducted in obscurity. Journalist often portrayed ARBiH troops as well intentioned but hapless soldiers engaged in a futile struggle against overwhelming odds. Bosnian government supporters encouraged this representation during the war to highlight the plight of the city's civilians, but armed defense of the city was much more effective than outsiders frequently portrayed it.


Sarajevans were deeply disturbed by the sheer randomness of death in the city as well as by the mounting number of casualties. No resident of Sarajevo passed those wartime years without mourning the loss of one or several family member, close friends, or neighbors. Grief was deepened by survivor's guilt, the awareness that the sniper might just as well have selected the prior passerby or the artillery shell might have been landed a few feet away or a few minutes earlier or later. Global television coverage transmitted the human agony of the infamous massacres of civilians in the bread line on Miskin Street and at the Markale marketplace, but little notice was taken of most deaths except by those who buried and mourned the victims of the war. Mourning proved as hazardous as life's other life activities. Burial services brought a significant number of people into close proximity, and numerous times gunmen in the surrounding hills shot and killed mourners.

Death mingled with persistent shortages of food and water. The average Sarajevan lost thirty pounds during the siege. With little or no heating gas for weeks at a time, Sarajevans suffered prolonged exposure to cold. Waste disposal became a chronic problem. Toilets went unflushed, and garbage piled high on sidewalks and in the courtyards of apartment buildings. Nonetheless, during years of deprivation and daily threats to their lives, Sarajevans found affirmation in being in the vanguard of a struggle against savagery. Rather than demeaning their lives, siege conditions elevated their sense of purpose. Historian and Sarajevo resident Dževad Juzbašić characterized that period in his life as a "struggle for mere survival, but also for the defense of human dignity."


Sarajevo: A Biography. 2005. Robert Donia [C. Hurst & Co]

 Back 21 - Next