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Sarajevo Marks 20th Anniversary Of Beginning Of Siege

  • RFE/RL

SARAJEVO -- Exactly 11,541 red chairs were lined up in rows along the main street of Sarajevo -- one for every man, woman, and child killed during the siege of the city that began two decades ago.

Many of the chairs were small, representing the hundreds of children killed.

The dramatic "Sarajevo Red Line" project was one of many exhibitions, concerts, and performances held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, which launched the 1992-95 conflict in Bosnia in which more than 100,000 people were killed and more than 2.2 million fled their homes.

According to RFE/RL's correspondent in Sarajevo, Daisy Sindelar, events organized to commemorate the anniversary were seen by many as the first opportunity for the people of Sarajevo to collectively remember the victims.

"This is a city where the war dead were buried wherever space was available, at a time when people could not move far from their houses," she said. "So parks and soccer stadiums in ordinary neighborhoods all served as impromptu graveyards. So many people feel there has never been a chance for the city to come together en masse to pay tribute to the adults and children lost during the siege."

Many Sarajevans wiped away tears as they remembered their loved ones who died during the 44-month siege, the longest in modern history.

Biba Mehimovic stands with her granddaughter Sara in front of the small red chairs symbolizing the 643 children who died in the siege.

Biba Mehimovic stands with her granddaughter Sara in front of the small red chairs symbolizing the 643 children who died in the siege.

Biba Mehimovic, 65, looking at the sweeping rows of small red chairs with her granddaughter Sara, 5, said she felt a range of emotions.

"I'm very sad," she said. "But at the same time, I'm very proud, because Sarajevo is still a city for everyone, still a multiethnic place -- for Serbs, Croats, Jews, Roma -- everyone."

Elma Ocuz, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, also came to Titova Street to attend the commemoration events. She's too young to remember the war herself, but she has heard many stories from her parents and her older brother, who was just 6 months old when the war began.

"My brother was very little, and the food was gone, and it was very hard for [my parents] to see the baby with nothing to eat," she said. "When they talk to me about it now, it's hard for me to listen because it's a very hard story. But I'm proud of my parents, because they made it. They made it."

Bosnian Serb forces laid siege to Sarajevo after the European Community recognized the independence Bosnian Muslims and Croats had voted for in a referendum opposed by the Serbs.

Hundreds Of Children Among Victims

Bosnian Serb forces aided by Serbia went on to occupy 70 percent of the country, killing and persecuting non-Serbs.

Lamia Alibegovic, 13, and Elma Ocuz, 14, visit the "Sarajevo Red Line" installment.

Lamia Alibegovic, 13, and Elma Ocuz, 14, visit the "Sarajevo Red Line" installment.

In the siege of Sarajevo, which began on April 6, 1992, some 380,000 people were left without electricity, water, or heating as they tried to take cover from more than 300 shells that smashed into the city each day.

Many of those who died during the siege -- including hundreds of children -- were killed by snipers.

The Bosnian conflict ended in 1995 with the Dayton peace agreement. That deal ended the fighting but left the nation strongly divided along ethnic lines, with Bosnia-Herzegovina comprising the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska.

PHOTO GALLERY: Sarajevo Then And Now

Bosnian theater director Haris Pasovic, the organizer of the "Sarajevo Red Line," maintains that the city "needs to stop for a moment and pay tribute" to those killed during the siege.

"Those people gave their lives for the freedom of this city," he said. "They loved this city. They were killed just because they were citizens of this city, because they were in their homes, at their schools, at their playgrounds. They were killed in the hospitals, in the streets, in the apartments, everywhere."

Events to commemorate the anniversary included a "virtual museum" depicting the siege.

On April 5, Vedran Smajlovic, known as "the Cellist of Sarajevo," performed his first concert in the city since the end of the fighting.

Smajlovic had played his cello in the streets, bomb shelters, and at funerals as mortars rained on Sarajevo, becoming a symbol of resistance to war.

PHOTO GALLERY: Remembering The Siege

With reporting by AP and AFP

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