Bosnians have something to say to Ukraine about life after a siege

There may be darker days ahead for Ukraine but a message from Sarajevo speaks of hope

A couple survey the devastation of their neighbourhood near Sarajevo airport, where intense shelling and fighting had reduced nearly every house to rubble, in April 1996, in Sarajevo. Tom Stoddart Archive

Seeing the images of Bucha, I cannot help but wonder what worse horrors we will find when and if the siege of Mariupol lifts. The Red Cross has called the siege “apocalyptic”. Since February 24, the day the Russian invasion began, Mariupol has been brutalised. It has sustained shelling by tanks, artillery, and an amphibious assault by the Black Sea Fleet.

Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, said BM 21-Grad, multiple rocket launchers were hitting the city’s hospitals. He called for humanitarian corridors to evacuate the civilians. Several times these corridors have failed. The shelling continued even as people tried to escape.

Of all the military tactics, laying siege to a city is among the cruelest. They turn neighbourhoods into concentration camps. Teenagers are killed playing soccer. Water supplies dwindle. Electricity goes dim. Civilians are buried in mass graves. After a while, there is no room left in cemeteries. Sometimes there are no more coffins and people are buried in bags.

In Sarajevo, which withstood the longest siege in modern history, from April 2, 1992 to February 29, 1996, they began to bury the dead in a former football pitch. It was called Lion’s Cemetery because of a stone lion that had once stood at the gates of a city park in happier days. Today it is littered with graves, mostly of the very young. Whenever I have walked through it post-war, I remember those terrible funerals where the Bosnian Serbs continued to shell and snipe the mourners as they buried their loved ones.

What I remember most about the siege of Sarajevo is the hunger and the cravings. Bosnians are meat eaters, but for nearly four years they lived on rice and whatever they found in the humanitarian aid packages that arrived when the planes weren’t being shot down. They made cheese from rice.

In Yarmouk camp outside of Damascus, populated largely by Palestinians, people made soup from leaves during the siege – and where the United Nations, for a reason no one ever really understood, in 2015, stopped calling it a siege. That was despite the fact that they had not been able to deliver humanitarian aid to the starving people for months.

Sieges destroy the soul of a community, which is the primary intent. Sometimes, people rebel and refuse to be destroyed. Think of the 872-day siege of Leningrad in the year 1941, which caused mass casualties with starvation and the fierce cold. One million people died. But while the Nazis bombarded the city, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich completed his Symphony Number 7.

Although he was evacuated from Leningrad, the starving musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra bravely carried on. Many of them were suffering from malnutrition, collapsing during rehearsals – three died. The night they performed Symphony Number 7 though, loudspeakers carried the music to the furious German forces as a method of psychological warfare. “In that moment, we triumphed over the soulless Nazi war machine,” the conductor said.

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Sieges destroy the soul of a community, which is the primary intent. Sometimes people refuse to be destroyed

The Sarajevans had their own form of psychological defence: humour and an utter refusal to let their city fall, despite being shelled, sniped, starved and deprived of weapons because of an arms embargo.

Aida Cerkez, my friend, and colleague from the Associated Press Sarajevo, recently wrote an open letter to Ukrainians about not giving up. As a Bosnian, she endured nearly four years of pain and suffering. But she defied the siege. She had a T-shirt which read: "Sarajevo will be, everything else will pass". Meaning, the war, the pain, the agony, would end. Don’t give up.

Aida lived through the siege. Today she is a grandmother. During the four-year siege of Daraya in Syria, she helped give Syrians suffering what she had gone through critical advice. Last month, her letter to Ukrainians, which was broadcast on the BBC, went viral. In it she said, “Write down everything. Record it. One day it will define your history, explain what happened to Ukrainians who are yet to be born, and most likely, end up being used as evidence and proof in a court against those trying to kill you.”

That message was meant for people facing desperation. I think back of others who made it through the darkness of a siege. In 2016, some 25,000 inhabitants of Eastern Aleppo endured a brutal siege. Pope Francis called the trapped inhabitants “abandoned and beloved”. The cruelty of the siege was horrific to watch.

What did the Aleppans there miss the most? One man told me he missed simple things the most: meeting his friends to watch football on TV. But during siege life, there were no more friends and there was no TV or electricity. Another woman told me she missed seeing the fruit trees bloom. She had not been outside in weeks for fear of bombs. Living through a siege destroys your body with starvation but more urgently, the intent is to destroy your soul.

The resilience of the Ukrainians and their resistance has been profound. There are darker days ahead. I fear more war crimes and atrocities will be discovered. I am part of a team that is documenting and verifying war crimes for future tribunals and courts. It is painful work because you stare into the deepest pit of evil: that is, what man is capable of doing to his fellow man.

But there is hope. Others have survived. Aida's message to her embattled friends is this: “Over time, you will sing … but for now, I am sending you my most precious thing … my slogan … Ukraine will be, everything else will pass".

Published: April 07, 2022, 4:00 AM