Tom Stoddart: The Siege of Sarajevo

On this 20th anniversary of the conflict in Bosnia, Tom Stoddart shares the story of the siege he documented.

The people of Sarajevo endured the longest siege Europe has witnessed since the end of the Second World War.

For 47 months, families were held hostage in their own city without food, medicine, electricity or running water, by Bosnian Serb gunmen who had been their neighbours until this civil war erupted in the spring of 1992.

In the mountains and hills surrounding the city, hundreds of tanks and artillery batteries made sure nobody could escape. By the time their suffering ended in February 1996, more than 10,600 Sarajevans had been killed. Another 56,000 people were wounded, many of them maimed or invalided for life. More than 1,600 children died and 15,000 were wounded. Sarajevo had emerged from Marshall Tito’s Communist rule with optimism and hope, but its mainly Muslim population watched with trepidation as the former Yugoslavia tore itself apart with ethnic hatred and war.

The turning point for Sarajevo came in March 1992 when Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence, and on April 6, thousands of peace protestors took to the streets of the capital to march to the Parliament building.

Shots rang out and the siege of Sarajevo had begun. All roads into the city were blockaded and the airport closed as the Bosnian Serbs sealed off the city from the outside world.

From now on, this would become a fight for survival.

Daring to go out in search of bread or water could cost your life. Everyone, even the very young, knew the only way they dare venture outdoors was to run for their lives between makeshift barricades trying to elude the snipers.

All the city’s parks were stripped of trees for firewood then turned into cemeteries. The graveyards soon overflowed and ornamental gardens where courting couples once walked became burial grounds.

The United Nations children’s charity, UNICEF, reported that of Sarajevo’s 80,000 children at least 40% had been directly shot at by snipers. Just over 50% had seen someone killed, about the same number was forced from their homes, and nearly 90% had lived in underground shelters during the worst of the shelling. The UN estimates that over the course of the siege, Sarajevo was hit by an average of 329 shells a day. On a single July day in 1993, some 3,777 mortar and artillery shells crashed down into the streets and buildings.

In February 1994, when a mortar shell landed in a Sarajevo market killing 68 people, the international community gave the Bosnian Serbs an ultimatum to withdraw their heavy weapons or face air strikes.

There would be many more empty threats and broken ceasefires, until finally in August 1995, the world acted and NATO aircraft were ordered to bomb Serb artillery ringing Sarajevo.

This did not stop the killing.

It would be another six months before the Dayton Peace Accord was signed, the tanks moved out and international peacekeepers moved in on February 29, 1996, and the Bosnian government declared the siege lifted. One of the darkest chapters of modern times had come to an end.

-Tom Stoddart

You can also view these photos at www.flickr.com/photos/leicaakademiemayfair and see more of Tom’s images on his website tomstoddart.com.