Sarajevo was under siege from Bosnian Serb forces from April 1992 until the end of the war in November 1995. During that time, an average of 320 shells landed on the city each day, destroying homes, government buildings, hospitals, communication and cultural centres. Approximately 5,000 civilians were killed and the same number of soldiers. The city had been under attack for nearly two years when I decided to join Bill on a visit there in January 1994. We were taking in a batch of BBC and MTV CDs for the independent radio station, Radio Zid.
A week before we left we were at a Ron Kavana gig at the Stags Head in Camden Town. Ron is a folk/rock singer and a friend of Bill’s.
After he had sung ‘Young Ned of the Hill’, composed with The Pogues, he told us that he had enjoyed performing this on tour with them to enthusiastic British audiences who seemed to appreciate its sentiments – that Oliver Cromwell rot in hell.
When Bill said we would add his albums to our Sarajevo collection, he asked if he could join us.
‘Why do you want to come?’ said Bill.
‘My grandma was a fiddle player in Limerick.’ That didn’t seem to answer the question. There was a long pause. ‘She was killed by the Brits in 1921. What you tell me about Sarajevo reminds me of her. She used to perform in cellars, out of sight of the Black and Tans.’
He didn’t need to say more about them. They were British ex-First World War soldiers and released prisoners with a reputation for murderous brutality. They were recruited to support the Royal Irish Police in suppressing the War of Independence.
‘One night they heard her playing, took her away and shot her. If I come to Sarajevo I will play music and will be honouring her memory.’
We flew from Zagreb on a UN Russian Ilyushin cargo plane. Arriving in Sarajevo, we found that airport security was in the hands of the French and we ran from the aircraft into a maze of sandbagged alleyways. They were signposted BOUL’VD ST MICHEL, CHAMPS-ELYSÉES, AVENUE FOCH. Border control was under the Danes, who stamped our passports with ‘Maybe Airlines, Sarajevo’. Then a lift into town in an APC driven by Egyptians.
The soldier who stamped my passport told me that the French had little contact with the Danish and the Danes even less with the Egyptians. ‘Watch their drivers,’ he said. ‘As soon as they start the engine, jump in the back. They won’t tell you when they’re about to leave.’ The road into town passed through Dobrinja which was Serb-controlled, so this was the only way to get into the city.
The Egyptians dropped us off at the UN Headquarters in Džemala Bijedica Ulica which was some distance from our destination, the Holiday Inn. We had to hire a taxi to go any further.
Our driver said he was unable to drop us at the hotel, and we were left to run there from the main road, nicknamed ‘Sniper’s Alley’. I was carrying Ron’s guitar which I dropped. I went back for it as Bill shouted, ‘Don’t get killed for a guitar.’
The Holiday Inn was a bubble set within an inferno. The cavernous eight-storey lobby set at its centre was the only safe place apart from the basement restaurant, where waiters in bow ties put on the pretence of normality, serving the only proper food in the city. Their sunken cheeks and sallow complexions gave the lie to that, as did the continuous sound of urban war. The bedrooms, those not gutted by shell fire, had no glass in the windows, and the only protection from the cold and wind was UNHCR plastic sheeting. When the shelling and gunfire seemed to be too close, I spent a lot of time in the bathroom.
The hotel was full of journalists and aid workers. At breakfast (a boiled egg, bread and Nescafé) I sat beside someone from the International Committee of the Red Cross. He already had on his flak jacket and asked me where mine was. I told him we had left ours at the airport, along with the helmets. You were not allowed to land without wearing them. He was shocked and accused us of being irresponsible. I answered that since the people we worked and met with didn’t have this protection, why should we?
Sarajevo was a city of Kalashnikovs, armoured personnel carriers (APCs), rocket-propelled grenades and people who’d been pushed back into the Dark Ages: horse-drawn carts, backs bent to the weight of firewood and water containers. A Hieronymus Bosch landscape.
After not getting shot, its citizens expended their remaining energy on trying to keep warm and finding food, yet the people seemed intent on creating a sense of normality.
That normality applies to fear. In her book, Zlata’s Diary – A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, Zlata Filipovic describes how her mother coped well with the war. She would risk her life to get the family food and water, but when a mouse entered a room she would jump on chairs and beds.1
Ivana Maček talks about how she found the city full of ‘“magical thinking”, “macabre humour”, artistic expression, and other survival mechanisms aimed at helping civilians regain a sense of control over their lives.’2
On our first night, we went to the Obala Bar near the Miljacka River which was practically on the front line. Bob Marley’s ‘War, No More Trouble’ was playing as we entered: Everywhere is war, me say war.
The city was without mains electricity supply. The more ingenious managed to rig up car batteries, telephone jacks or bicycle dynamos. For the very lucky, there were generators. I can’t remember what they were using that night at Obala, except that the power didn’t last long. Bob Marley gave way to unplugged live music supplied by Ron and some local musicians. One of them told me that his sister had recently killed herself because she’d had enough. He said this matter- of-factly, as though her death was what had become expected of life in Sarajevo.
There was a young actor there whose mother lived on the Serb side of the lines. He’d not seen her since the start of the war two years before. He said that unless he moved to the hills, joined the Serb forces and bombarded his friends, there would be no chance of meeting her.
The next day we went to Radio Zid so that Ron could perform live on air and we could hand over our CDs. We were told that these broadcasts were listened to in the hills above, but the guys up there obviously didn’t appreciate ‘Young Ned of the Hill’. The shelling was heavy that day.
Radio Zid was a 24-hour independent radio station determined to promote Sarajevo’s non-nationalist urban culture. Over the three-year siege, there were 185 theatre productions in the city, 170 exhibitions and 48 concerts, much of this supported and promoted by Radio Zid. When children couldn’t go to school because their schools were too dangerous or too cold, Zid organised Zimska Skola – Winter School – educational broadcasts. In blocks of flats parents would gather the children together and they would listen to Radio Zid. If they were lucky, a teacher would be there to give the semblance of a real school.
At the radio station we met Jasmina, a 16-year-old who asked us to correct her boyfriend’s love poems which he’d written for her in English. They were in an exercise book at home. ‘Please, will you come with me?’
We drove her there, but she didn’t want us to come inside with her. She said her parents would be ashamed because they were all living in the basement. She retrieved the poems and we sat with her in the back of the taxi.
They were sad, wistful words of love, life and death. After discussing prepositions and possessive pronouns, Hussein, our driver, got edgy and pointed at a sign on a nearby wall, PAZITE SNAIPER – Beware of Snipers – and said that we were parked in direct line of fire from the hills and needed to back into a side street. Jasmina shrugged. She didn’t think it mattered.
When we took pathetically small gifts of food and drink into homes, we were stroked, wept over and offered back what we had brought them. The dregs of whisky in my almost- empty hip flask created such excitement with an old man that he called his wife over. They put the flask to their noses, before sharing what was left. This couple lived on the hillside above Bascarsija, the oldest part of town. They considered themselves lucky because they were able to grow some food in their small garden: onions, beans, chard and squash.
The human spirit finds expression in extremes, the barbarism above the city matched by a civilisation below. An actor from the National Theatre had both legs shattered by shrapnel and they had to be amputated. On the day of the operation he and his wife were in the same hospital, she to give birth. ‘I’ve lost half my body,’ he said, ‘but my wife has given birth to a whole one.’ He joked that he was a big drinker and said that now he would have to be carried into bars rather than out of them.
The women of Sarajevo kept up their appearance with whatever cosmetics they could lay their hands on. Many were smartly dressed and wore high heels in the streets as a message of defiance. Getting water involved great risk because the Serbs targeted water taps. An elderly woman told us that she washed her hair every week which involved a two-kilometre walk. ‘I am,’ she said, ‘a resident of Sarajevo.’
Sarajevo has always been proud of its cosmopolitanism, its ethnic mix and strong cultural traditions. Before the break- up of Yugoslavia, thirteen per cent of marriages in Bosnia- Herzegovina were mixed, but in Sarajevo the figure was above thirty per cent. One street had a mosque, Catholic and Orthodox churches and a synagogue. All four buildings were destroyed or damaged by mortars.
Back at Radio Zid, director Zdravko Grebo told us that his diabetic daughter and many others like her didn’t have any insulin. He’d gone to the UN medical agencies, but they’d told him that the problem was too small for them to deal with. He showed us a list with the names of the young diabetics he had compiled with help from one of the doctors at the city’s Kosevo Hospital.
It was this chance encounter that was to result in War Child’s diabetic project: taking insulin and diabetic equipment to Sarajevo and later, Mostar and other towns. Small NGOs such as War Child ended up being major players in bringing in vital medicines.
On our last day in the city we visited the Markale market because there were no shops left in Sarajevo. Cooking oil was 40 Deutschmarks a litre (£16), sugar 70DM a kilo and coffee 150. The monthly salary for a doctor in the hospital was 5DM.
After four days, we were on the same Russian plane flying back to Zagreb. Ron had already left and Bill and I were its only passengers, sitting strapped to the side of the cargo hold. At the front, there was a hissing samovar. The navigator came over with hot mugs of Russian tea. I think he saw how worried I looked and invited me to sit beside him in the glass bubble directly under the pilot.
Before take off, he opened a wooden drawer and took out a map. He then used a compass to work out a flight route. If he hadn’t been wearing a Russian air force helmet, I would have mistaken him for Vasco da Gama. Above the noise of the engines, he threw aside his broken intercom and shouted directions to the pilot above. And we thought the Russians threatened the West with World War III.
We arrived back in London on the evening of February 5th, 1994 to find out that that morning 68 people had been killed in a mortar attack on the Markale market and 144 had been wounded. We had walked through it only the day before.
Watching the news on TV my partner, Anne, asked me if I had been frightened. I thought of the young people at Obala, of Jasmina and her poems, of the old couple and my whisky. ‘How could I be? The people there are under permanent siege. I was just a visitor.’
1 Zlata’s Diary – A Child’s Life in Sarajevo, Zlata Filipovi , Penguin 2 Sarajevo Under Siege: Anthropology in Wartime, Ivana Ma ek, University of Pennsylvania Press 2009