The ghosts of Sarajevo: a journalist looks back at the enduring tragedy of the Balkan wars

It is nearly 25 years since the siege of Sarajevo started. Kevin Sullivan was almost killed covering the conflict and tells us about the enduring tragedy of the Balkan wars.

Journalist and author Kevin Sullivan at the Latin Bridge (Princip Bridge), Sarajevo. in 2014. Courtesy Sulejman Omerbasic
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“A quarter of a century after [the siege of Sarajevo] there is still a very strong undertone of civic society. People will say, I am a citizen first before any religious affiliation. But that has really been very seriously undermined. Bosnia-Herzegovina was in many ways a model for the rest of Europe. It is a society with a very long tradition – five centuries – of creative coexistence among different cultures. They were practising multiculturalism long before other nations. The people who set about destroying that were pretty successful. It is very sad.”

So says Kevin Sullivan, Glasgow-born journalist and novelist, about 25 years to the day after the siege of Sarajevo began on April 6, 1992. Sullivan reported on the longest blockade of a major city in modern warfare and almost lost his life in the process. The siege lasted three times-longer than Stalingrad, ending on February 29, 1996 – 1,425 days after Bosnian Serb forces began shelling Sarajevo from nearby mountains. Estimates of the death toll vary, but about 14,000 people were killed, of whom 5,000 were civilians and 500 children. Sarajevo’s pre-war population of 500,000 dropped by more than 120,000.


History of conflict: the war that tore the Balkans apart


The number of those injured has been similarly debated, with the total estimated as high as 50,000. Technically speaking, this figure does not include Sullivan himself, whose own brush with death occurred about 100 kilometres outside Sarajevo in the small town of Gornji Vakuf. Nevertheless, it was his decision to leave his job for The Guardian in Japan and report the daily privations suffered by those barricaded in the Bosnian capital that placed him in the firing line.

Sullivan has now turned his experiences into an impressive autobiographical novel, The Longest Winter, which vividly relates the challenges of reporting from the epicentre of a battlefront. "Most of my prognostications about the conflict were wrong," Sullivan says today. "The paradox is that the person in the middle of the battle doesn't have a bird's-eye view."

Yet the novel is also a love letter of sorts to the city has called home for 25 years. These days, 60-year-old Sullivan, his Bosnian wife and daughter divide their time between Sarajevo and Spain.

The Longest Winter noticeably omits the incident that almost cost him his life. When we talked in London recently, however, Sullivan recalled the day in early 1993, when the Land Rover transporting him and two fellow Reuters journalists struck a landmine. All three survived but Sullivan's legs were shattered by the blast.

They had arrived in Gornji Vakuf to cover a ceasefire between Croats and Bosniaks (or Bosnian Muslims) who had been fighting for control of the small town. They entered streets filled with rubble. “The last thing that my colleague who was driving said was, ‘Thank god for Land Rovers,’” Sullivan says drily.

“It was the loudest explosion I’ve ever experienced.” The armour-plated vehicle was blown into the air, its momentum drove a camera into the chin of the Reuters photographer. She at least was spared Sullivan’s fate. “She was shorter so her legs were dangling. Since my feet were on the floor, my legs were broken.”

In the shock of the aftermath, Sullivan did not initially realise what had happened. “I remember saying, ‘Maybe we should drive down the road.’ I didn’t realise the Land Rover was a complete wreck. One of the doors had blown open with the explosion. When I tried to get out, I immediately fell over. I didn’t realise until later, my legs were so badly broken.”

Sullivan saw a second mine, about three feet away, just as two Bosnians ran into the street to rescue him. The only drawback in their courageous recovery was an understandable haste. “When you see someone lying in the street, you grab them by the ankles. When they grabbed me they rearranged the broken bones even further. That was very unpleasant and painful.”

Sullivan was transported to a nearby basement. “The only medicine the Bosniak clinic had was paracetamol. One of my legs was tied to a broomstick with string. That was the only thing that they had.” Whatever self-pity his situation might have evinced evaporated when he compared it to that of injured Bosnians. “I was taken away by British troops because I was a UN-accredited journalist. These other people lying on the same concrete floor were not going anywhere, were not getting morphine or the latest medical treatment. It was my choice to go there. Whatever happened was my responsibility. Whereas when the war comes to your town and you have no choice, I think that is really the experience that really should be described.”

Sullivan convalesced in Glasgow but returned to Sarajevo as soon as he could. He admits to the addictive rush of war reporting but denies he is a gung-ho correspondent and says he simply found a story and city that infatuated him, and not only because he had met the woman he would later marry.

Sullivan first visited Sarajevo in 1991. He had been working in Tokyo when the Yugoslav war began: previous assignments included covering the Tiananmen Square massacre. His first impressions included trams, thick Bosnian coffee, “dreadful pop music and the fact that everyone smoked all the time”. Sullivan also found a city at peace and at peace with itself: Muslims, Croats and Serbs coexisting in a tolerant, modern capital that boasted the highest number of mixed marriages in Yugoslavia.

“What was so striking in Sarajevo in 1991 was the fact that every person you met said, ‘I have nothing against whichever community might be seen as antagonistic.’” Sullivan returned to Japan via Dubrovnik (itself under siege by Serb forces) and rapidly realised his mistake. “The only news story in the world was in the place I had just left.”

He is quick to correct my misapprehension that the Bosnian war was an ethnic battle. “In Bosnia-Herzegovina, all of the communities are ethnically the same. There are bigger differences between Lowland Scots and Highlanders than the Slavs in Bosnia.”

Instead, the divisions that destroyed Sarajevo, Bosnia and the entire region were, he believes, created by nationalist politicians like Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. “In most towns, you would see a church and a mosque. There may have been Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox sides of a village but they were very mixed.” Indeed, the day before the siege began, Sarajevo’s citizens from all cultural and religious backgrounds marched together for peace.

They failed. “Within the space of a year, people had begun to see themselves as they were being portrayed.”

The growing enmity divided families, apartment blocks and the city. Sullivan offers an example of the changing mood. At the end of 1992, he interviewed several Muslims, seated in a bar, for an article about Sarajevo’s Islamic culture. “One guy said, ‘I now try to pray five times a day. I didn’t used to but if they are going to kill me because I’m a Muslim I should really try to be a better Muslim’.”

If journalism and fiction allowed Sullivan to process these narratives, both personal and political, then writing of a different kind enabled him to contribute to his adopted homeland. He worked for the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the implementation of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, writing speeches and acting as a spokesman. In 2014, Sullivan joined the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Founded in 1996, its original brief was to locate 40,000 people unaccounted for at the end of the war. “Imagine what it’s like when a member of your family simply disappears. It’s an open wound.”

A typical search utilises DNA research and witness testimony. “There have been cases where people who were involved in crimes learn that they have six months to live and feel like they have to clear their consciences and give protected testimony.”

Satellite photography has proved invaluable in locating mass graves around Srebrenica, the site of the war’s most chilling act of ethnic cleansing. “Primary graves were dug up with bulldozers and the bodies moved in an effort to hide them. There was one case where parts of the same body were found in five different graves, 70 kilometres apart. The only way to reconstruct that skeleton is using DNA.”

Sullivan describes the ICMP’s mission in Srebrenica as enormously successful. In the 20 years since the genocide, 7,000 of the 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks massacred by Serb troops have been found.

Various Serbian soldiers and politicians have been accused and convicted of war crimes, above all at Srebrenica. In 2010, five high-ranking officials of the Bosnian Serb force, the Army of Republika Srpska, were sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY); a subsequent appeal was overturned in 2015. Both Milosevic and Karadzic were put on trial by the ICTY. While Milosevic died before a verdict could be reached, Karadzic was last year found guilty of 10 of 11 war crimes. A verdict in the trial of army commander Ratko Mladic is due in November 2017.

“Justice is elusive but the pursuit of justice is essential, because the facts are established – making war crimes denial more difficult – and because the absence of justice undermines post-war recovery. The number of prosecutions is small compared to the number of perpetrators but the process is ongoing and is an indispensable pillar of establishing lasting peace in the Western Balkans.”

Sullivan sounds less hopeful about Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole. While the peace has held, the schisms opened during the war remain. “The political stakeholders who were fastest on their feet were the most unscrupulous and possibly the dimmest. We have seen a new establishment that is unimpressive and, I would say, fundamentally corrupt.”

Yet Sullivan’s love affair with Sarajevo endures. “There are three places I love to walk in the morning. Glasgow, our small village in Spain and Sarajevo. That is where home is.”

James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.