Thousands of red chairs stood empty along Sarajevo’s main avenue on Friday as Bosnia commemorated the 20th anniversary of the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.
A classical orchestra was to play a concert for the 11,541 empty seats, one for each civilian killed in the city in its siege during the 1992-95 war, with Sarajevo residents asked to stop what they’re doing to mark the start of the conflict.
In the morning workmen set up the seats along a length of some 800 metres (900 yards) on Sarajevo’s central Marshall Tito Avenue.
Exactly twenty years ago the last hopes of thousands of Bosnians who took to the streets of Sarajevo to demand peace were shattered as Bosnian Serb snipers fired on the protest.
As the first civilian casualties of war fell, the European Community recognised Bosnia’s independence from the former Yugoslavia on April 6, 1992.
In the following three and a half years the country was torn apart, divided along ethnic lines. Some 100,000 people were killed and half the population of 4.4 million fled their homes.
Many in Sarajevo live daily with the memories of the longest city siege in modern history. For 44-months Bosnia Serb troops shelled the town from the hills above and snipers shot pedestrians at random.
“I mostly recall the near continuous bombing, the snipers, the dead,” 64-year-old Fuad Novalija, a craftsman in Sarajevo’s old town, told AFP.
“The shells fell when we least expected them. People were killed as they queued for water or bread.”
While the city’s most symbolic buildings have all been restored in the years since the end of the war, Sarajevo still bears the traces of shells and bullets.
It was the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims after the fall of the UN “safe area” Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb troops that finally led to NATO intervention which forced Bosnian Serbs into retreat.
Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are both facing trial for genocide before the UN war crimes court in The Hague over Srebrenica. The other main protagonists of the war have all died or have been convicted of war crimes.
Five months after the Srebrenica massacre– the only episode of the Bosnian war to have been ruled a genocide by a UN war crimes tribunal and the UN’s top court, the International Court of Justice — the Western-imposed Dayton peace agreement ended the war.
It created a two-entity state composed of the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serbs’ Republika Srpska. While Dayton brought peace it also cemented the ethnic divisions that still haunt the country today.
Bosnia’s two semi-autonomous statelets have their own political institutions, loosely connected through an almost powerless central government.
Parking attendant Munib Kovacevic is sombre about the current situation. Bosnia is one of the poorest countries in Europe and has 40 percent unemployment. It has been unable to push through EU-sought reforms as politics are completely divided along ethnic lines.
“Reconciliation would have gone a lot better if the economy had taken off,” he said.
He blamed politicians for keeping up the ethnic divisions and fanning people’s fears to cling to power.
“What would become of the nationalist parties if people become friends again? They would disappear!”
Craftsman Novalija said Bosnia has been stagnating politically since the end of the war as the economic situation got worse.
“We have peace now, but that is really the only progress,” he concluded bitterly.