Saturday, June 13, 2009

The nature of the war

There have been many heated discussions when describing the war in Sarajevo as a "civil war". I will try not add to that fire here. I know what I know, and putting any particular label on what happened would not make it any less tragic.

I know who was integrating Me, who was preventing Me from being with My family, who made Us leave Our home, and who was shooting at Me. And I didn't volunteer to be a part of any of that. So for Me, it has never been a civil war in the sense that civilians from both sides have knowingly entered into conflict with each other. Many civilians in Sarajevo were forced to take guns to defend themselves and their homes. Many of the people I knew, who never intended to be soldiers, have had to become ones because they realized there was nobody else who will fight for them. The civilians, who had no weapons to begin with, had to face the national army. So, what I know is that some political decisions have caused our blissful, happy lives to be interrupted when heavy armed forces started targeting at us civilians as at a shooting range. A civil war involves two-sided violence; a massacre of civilians by the state is not a civil war.

Most people in Sarajevo have called it the aggression, and in many parts of the country it was a full blown one. It was an aggression in the sense that after Bosnia declared its independence, the national army of the former Yugoslavia, now under control of the government in Serbia, consisting of soldiers from both Serbia itself and the Serb majority regions of Bosnia, has occupied other parts of the country. The well equipped army had all the advantage against the civilians. For whatever reason, however, after the first couple of months of the war, the Serb army didn't advance any further into Sarajevo. They stayed at their positions up on the hills, and continued aggressively sending explosive presents down unto the city.

I realized after I moved to the US that in the west this phrase "civil war" was used by default when talking about conflict in Bosnia, and for the outsiders I suppose it looked that way. Over the four years of the war, the Bosnian army, through different means, acquired weapons to defend the country. With guns comes the violence and innocent people were killed on all sides. I am not going to delve into the dictionary definitions of these terms, but war in the city definitely had a different nature.

Sarajevo is a densely populated city. Most people live in apartment buildings and sky risers. It was also a diverse city, where some 75% of marriages were a mix of different nationalities. Many families were divided and people felt the need to take sides. Many Serbs in our old neighbourhood were in the national army, because half of the apartments were owned by the army. Many, if not all, of them knew about what was planned to happen, and left the town right before or in the early weeks of the war. Many Serbs were afraid what would happen to them if they stayed, so they voluntarily left their homes and moved just outside the city limits. Many moved into houses of people of other nationalities who had to leave because the army was threatening them (like they did to us).

Some of those who stayed were working as the insiders. They were shooting out from their apartments onto civilians who didn't expect bullets coming from those directions. These people eventually ended up in local prisons. My mom was telling me of the flashy signals coming out the building across from ours in the early weeks of the war when they didn't know what was going on.

In the early days, when the borders were still being defined, soldiers from the two sides would literally be on either side of a building. Some buildings, like this one, were completely collapsed in the middle, because the armies were so frequently sending grenades at each other. This picture is the first line of defence on Grbavica. The red building in the center had the Bosnian soldiers on the left, and Serb soldiers on the right. In the middle or the building all the floors have collapsed. This was an absolutely no civilian zone, for several blocks away.

The apartment building where we used to live before the war was also on the front line, from the Serb side, so you can imagine a similar destruction. The layout of the neighbourhood was different than Grbavica, and there was a 4 lane avenue in front of the building that was the border. The soldiers on either side had positioned themselves in certain apartments, ours being one of them, and barricaded the windows with bricks leaving only a small opening at the top. A friend of mine, whom I didn't know before the war, who fought in the Bosnian army had told me that he was in one such apartment in the building across from hours, on the Bosnian side. They were sending inflammable bullets, and competing who can hit through the narrow opening. Our apartment could have caught on fire through one of these games.

The ending of the war on paper happened at the end of 1995 with signing of a peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio. Because the military positions were within neighbourhoods, and apparently the participants in Dayton did not use detailed maps,
boundary lines in Dobrinja ran right through the middle of two apartment buildings. There were disputes as to which side owns what which emerged from the problems of partitioning what had been ethnically mixed territory.

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