SARAJEVO – Forty-three-year-old Stana Cisic is so radiantly cheerful that for a minute it is impossible to believe that she’s the mother of a baby killed by a sniper’s bullet.
Stana’s husband, Samir, says it’s always been that way. His wife, the pillar of the family, rarely breaks down. Instead, he’s the one who cries almost silently as she recounts how their daughter Irina was killed just days after her first birthday in October 1993.
“Four days after her birthday, we went out for a walk. It was a beautiful day, and we used to go out when there was no shooting. But a sniper bullet found her that day," Stana says.
"We rushed to the hospital and she had emergency surgery. There were a lot of doctors there fighting for her life. But her body was just too small and fragile. She died in Samir’s arms.”
Irina was one of hundreds of children killed during the 44-month siege of Sarajevo, when Bosnian Serb forces, alarmed by Muslim-majority Bosnia-Herzegovina’s decision to break from federal Yugoslavia, surrounded the city, cutting off supplies of food and electricity and sending mortar fire and sniper bullets raining down on its residents.
The siege of Sarajevo is the longest in modern European history, a full year longer than the World War II blockade of Leningrad -- and all the more shocking for the international community’s failure to intervene despite heavy media coverage and the presence of UN troops.
Now, as the city prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege, theater director Haris Pasovic, who is organizing the April 6 commemorations, says the event is an opportunity for Sarajevans to collectively grieve over their lost friends and relatives even as the city asserts its multicultural heritage.
Pasovic’s anniversary events include a poetry reading and the placement of 11,541 red chairs next to the city’s eternal flame memorial. The chairs, he says, are meant to symbolize the official number of Sarajevans lost during the siege – Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats, and others.
VIDEO: Haris Pasovic's Everyday Reminder Of War
“We’re missing an entire city within the city," Pasovic says. "If these people had not been killed, it would be a very big critical mass of people who would contribute to the creative life of this city, whether they would be engineers or architects or workers or waiters or cooks or bakers. This was pure murder. They were killed because they loved this city, and they believed in this city and the values that this city stands for.”
Café culture continues to flourish in Sarajevo, where the affection for coffee, cigarettes, and intense conversation remains, seemingly undiminished.
But the scars of the war are still evident in Sarajevo, where many buildings remain pockmarked by bullets and mortar fire even as gleaming new skyscrapers, shopping malls, and Saudi-built mosques crop up along the city’s mountain-ringed skyline. The city’s beloved National Library, which was destroyed by fire during the war, remains largely unrepaired.
This, residents grumble, is the result of an administrative paralysis that is a legacy of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that brought the war to a close. Bosnia’s system of government, devised on the principle of equal ethnic and regional representation, is famously inefficient.
'We Have No Dialogue'
The country recently went 16 months without a government amid disputes between ethnic parties, and the presidency only this week called a conference to discuss the consequences of Croatia’s entry into the European Union next year – a conversation that some residents suggest should have been started five years ago.
Boro Kontic, who spent the war as a broadcaster with Radio Sarajevo and who now runs the city’s Mediacentar think tank, says Bosnia remains a country of “revolution, not evolution.”
“We have no dialogue in our country. We are still living in these trenches, like there’s a war," Kontic says. "It would be good just to talk about the war -- the consequences of the war, war crimes, but not with big words. Just a discussion. Or what are the little things that unite us? Football? Culture? Why not make a new life based on that, those small group of questions on which we agree?”
'A River Of Blood'
The same sentiment can be heard from many of those who suffered most during the war.
Seventy-two-year-old Esad Pozder is one of the last remaining survivors of the August 1995 bombing of the city’s central Merkale market.
Five mortar shells rained down on the market, which had already endured a devastating attack the year before. The second assault left 37 people dead, including Pozder’s older sister and a close friend who had come to purchase one of Pozder’s cabbages.
“There was literally a river of blood,” he says now.
When their daughters ask about who killed their sister, Stana and Samir Cisic say they are careful to talk about the war without devolving into discussions of ethnic hatred or national divisions.
Today, the market is once again bustling, with traders, abundant piles of fresh produce, and vases of colorful flowers. A red wall at the back of the market marks the names of those killed in the attacks, and a glass box preserves a deep crack in the floor left by a grenade.
Many survivors say they have a difficult time returning to Merkale, the site of such vicious violence perpetrated by Serb fighters against the mainly Muslim Sarajevans. But Pozder, who is retired, walks comfortably to his former stand, where his cabbages have been replaced by pears.
“I’ve made peace with all that,” he says, and suggests his country should do the same.
“You simply can’t have a situation of having Republika Srpska there and us here. It has to be shared. We must have one Bosnia-Herzegovina, with all three nations – Muslim, Serb, Croat," Pozder says. "We need to have the kind of friendship we used to have once upon a time. Things can’t be good unless the people are reunited in an appropriate way.”
Stana Cisic, who has gone on to raise two more daughters, now 12 and 16, agrees. She herself is the product of a Catholic-Orthodox marriage, and her husband Samir is Muslim.
“We celebrate all the holidays in our house – Catholic Easter, Orthodox Easter, Ramadan, Christmas,” she says, laughing. “For us, it’s normal.”
Stana and Samir still keep the bullet that killed their first child, Irina. When their daughters ask about who killed their sister, Stana says they are careful to talk about the war without devolving into discussions of ethnic hatred or national divisions.
Ironically, Stana will spend the April 6 anniversary not in Sarajevo, but in Belgrade, where she has been invited to give a speech about Irina. She says she’s nervous about the trip but never reluctant to talk about the baby she lost.
“It’s not difficult for me,” she says. “I love to talk about my daughter. When I talk about her, I feel like she’s still here.”