The end of the Bosnian War in 1995, after nearly four years of fighting, was only the opening stage of a great political shift in the region. The former Yugoslavia had completely dissolved and the five newly founded states of the region were experiencing long term economic stagnation. In the wake of the war, over 2.2 million Bosnians of all ethnicities had been displaced. According to the UNHCR, an estimated 50,000 women had been raped and 100,000 people (both civilians and military personnel) had been killed. Other estimates suggest that close to 100,000 women had been raped and almost a quarter of a million people had been killed during the genocide. Twenty years after the wars began, a definitive accounting of the human loss of the Bosnian War does not exist. Indeed, since the official end of the war, few have looked back to see what has become of the nation that not so long ago suffered acts of genocide, rape and war crimes and became home to concentration camps not unlike what was seen during the Holocaust.
Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city of great beauty, a capital of culture and the historic home to a multiethnic population, was at the center of the Bosnian conflict. From April 1992 to February 1996, it suffered the longest siege of a national capital in the history of modern warfare. And yet, despite all these gruesome statistics and the death and destruction visited upon its population and infrastructure, the city has endured.
In spite of the war, the tragic losses and the political turmoil birthed out of the Dayton accords, which brought the conflict to an uneasy end, Sarajevo continues to thrive in ways unexpected by most observers. Though the past still remains very much present, the city’s greatest resource—its staunchly determined, hopeful and surprisingly optimistic population—never allowed for outside forces to destroy the qualities most beautiful and inherently Sarajevan (and to a greater extent, uniquely Bosnian): its creativity, resourcefulness, and above all, love for the multiethnic peoples comprising a unique and enduring community.
Even in great times of turmoil, Sarajevans understood the importance culture plays in rebuilding their society and keeping alive their beloved city’s cosmopolitan spirit. It was during the siege and under the threat of sniper fire and mortar attacks that a few brave Sarajevan film enthusiasts founded the Sarajevo Film Festival, which has now become an internationally recognized festival regarded for the quality of work that has been showcased there over the past 20 years. It is now the largest festival of its kind in southeastern Europe.
The city continues to not only rebuild but also develop new infrastructure, towering apartment complexes, steel and glass office towers and luxury hotels with the aid of foreign investors from Bahrain, Germany, and several other nations. In recent years, many of those displaced by the war have returned to city, and this return of population has been accompanied by an injection of young creative talent back into the city, providing it with a renewed sense of life and vitality.
Yet despite all these changes for the better and the people’s unshakable spirit and tenacity, the ghosts of the past continue to haunt the city’s streets and alleyways. These ghosts manifest themselves in the architecture of the city, parts of which still wear war-won scars from nearly four years of sniper fire and exploding mortar shells which rained over the besieged city with little pause. The ghosts of the past are also visible in the abiding political turmoil that threatens to paralyze the city, and in the continuing, though often unfruitful, pursuit of justice for the many victims of rape and genocide.
In 2003, a Sarajevo-based women’s rights organization, “Women Victims of War,” was founded by a small group of women who themselves suffered great atrocities during the war. They work tirelessly to gather information and witness reports in order to process war criminals through the BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina) high court. Some of the women who work there are victims of rape, others were beaten and mutilated, or watched their family homes burned down by Chetnik soldiers (Serbian hyper-nationalist paramilitary forces).
One woman in particular, Meliha Merdjić, who has been a member of the organization since it was established, hailed from Višegrad, a small town just northwest of Sarajevo, which would become a vital base of operations and strategic outpost to the Serbian military forces. She was raped by a neighbor, a man who would join the Chetnik forces and someone whom she had trusted a great deal prior to the war. Most of her family had been killed during the attack on her hometown.
Meliha had managed to escape her capture and fled into the woods, events which are still vivid in her memory. “I remember the birds. I remember running as quickly as I could. Flames from the city illuminated the sky. There were sirens going off everywhere… the sound of Army trucks and busses full of soldiers. Riots broke out and none of us knew what was happening. We were so naïve, we trusted them, but they killed everyone. I remember spending weeks in that forest with a group of people. I remember sleeping on the ground, and the birds… so many of them everywhere. The sound of them still frightens me.”
When asked why she had not left the country after everything she had endured, Meliha simply responded, “Because I am fighting for my country. I’m not doing this for me, I’m doing this for the next generation, and for histroy. I want people to know what happened here in Bosnia Herzegovina.”
Meliha’s tale is not unique. Bakira Hasečić, the head and founder of Women Victims of War, was herself a victim of notorious war criminal Milan Lukić, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity in July 2009 by the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). A profoundly courageous woman filled with fire and brimstone, Bakira continues to fight for justice, and despite often hopeless odds spends all her days filing court cases and reaching out to victims, both men and women, who often prove to be vital witnesses in high profile cases against elusive war criminals.
There are, in fact, many such people and many such organizations located throughout Bosnia and in Sarajevo. People there continue to struggle to cope with events of the past, but never cease pursuing justice and fighting for the country they so dearly love. There are few other places in the world which could claim to have survived such grotesque crimes against humanity, and yet the people there carry on.
A group of retirees meet every afternoon near a popular shopping district in Sarajevo called Ferhadija to play chess with giant plastic pieces on the checkerboard concrete of a piazza. Some of the men are ethnic Serbs, others Muslims, and some are Croat. Some of the men, Muslim and Serb, had fought during the war in an effort to defend their city. Now they gather, even in the middle of snowstorms and characteristically frigid February rain. They laugh, they bicker over the rules of the game, they embrace one another, and they share cigarettes. After everything that has transpired, and in the shadow of countless reminders of the violent past, the people of Bosnia and Sarajevo are rebuilding their communities and continue to find within themselves tremendous capacity for forgiveness and even love.