When Sarajevo marks the 20th anniversary of the start of its siege on April 6, the key memorial ceremony will be poignant, moving, and not entirely free of irony.
Actors will perform a drama for an audience of 11,541 empty red chairs. Each chair, lined up in silent rows down Marshal Tito Street in the city center, will symbolize one of the people killed in the 1992-96 siege.
But a touch of irony will creep in because the chairs themselves come from neighboring Serbia. And it was Serbia which provided arms and funds to the Bosnian Serb paramilitaries who kept the city under fire for four merciless years.
Media in Sarajevo broke the story of the chairs' origin just hours before organizers begin setting them up for the ceremony.
"Mayor Alija Behman has confirmed that those chairs are coming from Stara Pazova in Serbia because the factory there offered the lowest price for them," RFE/RL correspondent Dzenana Halimovic reports from Sarajevo. "They guaranteed the shipment within the necessary time and they are going to grant the delivery. They won't charge anything."
'Wasn't Ethical Or Moral'
The news that the chairs come from Serbia has caused a stir for several reasons.
One is that – while the Serbian factory granted generous terms – the source of the chairs can't help but create mixed feelings.
"People are kind of bitter since we are talking about a significant event and we are talking about more than 11,000 people killed by people who were supported by the Yugoslav National Army and Serbia itself," Halimovic said. "And that is the main reason why people are kind of bitter here. But they do not protest, in fact. They just say that it wasn't right; it wasn't ethical or moral."
Another reason the chairs are making headlines is that their origin highlights the struggling state of Bosnia-Herzegovina's economy a decade and a half after the war ended.
Behman, the Sarajevo mayor, said the organizers looked into ordering the chairs locally from the country's largest furniture factory in Gorazde, but it could not guarantee production of so many chairs on time.
That will make the simple chairs bear witness to many things on April 6. Witness to those who are not sitting in them, first and foremost. But also witness to the Herculean task of recovering from a war that killed 100,000 people across Bosnia, created 2 million refugees, and left a prosperous part of Europe in tatters still visible today.
Written by Charles Recknagel, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service