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Sirens of the Past: the Scars  of War in Bosnia and Herzegovina Alejandra Gotóo

Sirens of the Past: the Scars of War in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Written by  Alejandra Gotóo Jul 23, 2023

Waking up to the sound of an air raid siren test was an unsettling experience. As a Mexican, war had never been a part of my reality. We face many other challenges, but armed conflict is not one of them, at least for most people that live in Mexico City. However, in Sarajevo, the first Saturday of every month is marked by a test of the alarm system, a haunting reminder of the not-so-distant past. A similar practice also happens in Zagreb, though with a slightly less palpable sense of rawness. I believe the scars of war are not entirely healed in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), whereas in Croatia, the memories are somewhat more faded. Reflecting on this, I believe it is connected to the scale and nature of each war. Due to the length of this text, I will focus solely on the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A little bit of context

In 1991, tension gripped Yugoslavia as the unity of the nation began to unravel. Slovenia was the first to assert its desire for independence on June 25, 1991, followed by Croatia on October 8th, 1991. However, these declarations were met with resistance from the other regions of Yugoslavia. By the end of 1991, skirmishes had erupted in various cities, including Zadar and Dubrovnik. Amidst this backdrop, BiH also sought to become independent (March 1, 1992). In 1992 the escalating disputes erupted into a full-scale war in Croatian and Bosnian territories.

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The war that erupted in BiH had a different dynamic from that of Croatia. In Croatia, the conflict primarily revolved around issues of land and power, while in Bosnia, religion, and ethnicity played a significant role. Bosnia is a diverse region, with three major ethnicities and religions - Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims - coexisting for centuries. During Yugoslavia, the regime led by Josip Broz Tito managed to unite them all under the Yugoslav identity. However, with Tito's passing (1980), the nation lacked a strong political figure to preserve this unity.

This shift towards ethnic self-determination quickly descended into a horrific spiral of violence, including ethnic cleansing and ultimately culminating in genocide. As Bosnia and Herzegovina sought independence, the nation found itself torn apart along ethnic lines, with the three major ethnic groups, namely the Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs (Orthodox), and Croats (Catholics), vying for control and dominance in their respective territories. The once-unified nation became fragmented, and deeply rooted historical tensions and animosities resurfaced violently.

A genocide

Ethnic cleansing, fueled by a desire to establish ethnically homogeneous territories, resulted in mass displacement and forced migration of people belonging to different ethnic groups. In various parts of the country, atrocities were committed against civilians based on their ethnicity, leading to immense human suffering and loss of life.

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In July 1995, Srebrenica, a town in eastern BiH, was declared a UN-designated "safe area" in 1993 under the protection of Dutch UN peacekeeping forces. It was intended to be a place of refuge for Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians seeking protection from the violence and atrocities of the war. But it quickly became a nightmare. Over the course of several days, more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were systematically executed, making it one of the worst instances of genocide in Europe since World War II. Women and children were also subjected to rape and physical abuse.

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The aftermath

During our exploration of BiH in 2023, my husband and I encountered numerous reminders of the war's impact. Everywhere we went, tour guides passionately shared their accounts of the past, unprompted. Vedo's account of the war unfolded when he was 11 years old. He shared how much of his childhood was spent in basements due to the ongoing conflict. The lack of electricity forced them to rely on candles for light, and card games became a way to pass the time. Vedo witnessed the loss of two close friends during that time. One friend fell victim to a sniper's bullet while playing soccer in the street; one of those days, they were too bored to remain in the basement. The other met his end after being run over by a car when they went out to meet UN peacekeepers that brought supplies and assistance.

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In Mostar, the iconic stari bridge stands as a testament to unity, having been destroyed (1993) and rebuilt (2004) in an effort to mend the divide between warring factions. And to date, one side is mainly inhabited by Bosniaks and the other by Catholics. This division does not imply tension; people live in harmony. Nevertheless, there are many graveyards with Muslims that died in the war.

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Sarajevo still bears the scars of the past, with buildings displaying bullet holes from the Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted from 1992 to 1996, telling silent stories of the people’s enduring resilience. Among the poignant reminders, the Sarajevo Roses struck me the most: concrete scars left on the pavement or road by mortar shell explosions. Some of them have been filled with red resin, while others remain mere holes in the pathways, each one representing a fatal mortar shell explosion during the war. Even amidst the beauty of parks and picturesque surroundings, I would unexpectedly stumble upon another Sarajevo Rose. Each serves as a haunting reminder of the tragic events and loss of lives during the war. They can be found throughout the city, scattered across streets and squares, silently bearing witness to the war's horrors and the resilience of the people who endured the siege. These somber memorials carry a profound emotional weight, serving as a lasting tribute to the victims and a call for peace and remembrance.

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I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been born in a place where armed conflict remains a memory from the former century. I cannot fully comprehend the experiences of those who grew up amidst the turmoil of war, where families were torn apart and lives were forever altered in pursuit of safety and survival.

In a world filled with challenges and uncertainties, it is easy to take for granted the peace and stability we enjoy in our own lives. Let us be grateful for the safety and security that surrounds us, knowing that many others have not been as fortunate. Let us extend our appreciation to those who have worked tirelessly to rebuild their communities and survive despite the horrors of war.

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Alejandra Gotóo (1991, Mexico City), who studied English Literature and recently graduated with a Masters of Social Anthropology is now writing about her time in Croatia as a columnist in Dubrovnik Times. Her work has been published in Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. She has two published novels, Ruptura and Isadore or Absolute Love. Her topics of interest include nature, adventure, language, books, food, culture, animals, conservation, and women's rights. She also writes in her blog: Cardinal Humours.

 

The Voice of Dubrovnik

THE VOICE OF DUBROVNIK


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