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The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996

“The piano keys were Siberian cold”

Macro Story #1: Winter

The siege of Sarajevo lasted 1,425 days. "Being under siege" meant accepting the fact that the former way of living has disappeared and that the abnormal is becoming normal. Over time, the citizens of Sarajevo discovered methods of survival through innovations and creations, repurposing objects that were available to them, surviving despite permanent terror and destruction.

The piano keys were Siberian cold. But the sound of the piano spilled down the street, and made hurrying passers-by happy for at least a moment in time.

Destruction

Winter in Sarajevo under siege, shells, snipers, snow, ice, hunger completely laid bare the city, which became a target of permanent terror and destruction.

A long winter and long and tortuous nights

"By the end of September ’92, I think we were coming to grips with the fact that the war would be long and horrible. It was clear that it wouldn’t end while the days were still sunny and while we were still able to live off of what little food we had stocked up at home. Everything indicated that this was the beginning of a long winter and long, long and tortuous nights."

- Zlatko Dizdarević, journalist of "Oslobođenje" (Oral History, September 1992)

Mapping of the siege of Sarajevo

The general destruction during the siege of Sarajevo very quickly revealed a new geography of the city. Buildings, streets, squares got a new purpose and a new significance. The business centre Skenderija, which during the Olympics hosted numerous sports competitions, became the headquarters of UNPROFOR's French Battalion, but also a gathering centre for artists who took advantage of the fact that, due to the presence of UNPROFOR, there was water and electricity in the Collegium Artisticum gallery. In the underground parts of Skenderija, there was a sales centre in whose cafes people could meet, safe from grenades, and in boutiques the remaining clothes from 1992 were sold.

FAMA Collection

FAMA Collection, Survival Map 1992-1996 - The Siege of Sarajevo

Adaptation

Survival became the basic need of every individual during the siege of the city. The citizens of Sarajevo learnt new skills, acquired new knowledge - inventiveness and creativity became indispensable in everyday life. The search for firewood, pasting films on the windows, improvised methods of heating, lighting and cooking, the use of sledges to transport water during the winter became part of the daily routine.

The search for water

Especially in winter, going to get water was a big challenge. People used different carts and sleds to transport the water canisters. The art was to transport as many canisters as possible at once.

Laundry washing

During the siege, there was rarely water in the apartments. Even though the water was freezing, the citizens of Sarajevo used the moments when the city was not being fired upon to wash their clothes in the Miljacka river, even in the winter.

I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again'.

- Lewis Carroll

Cutting trees

During the harsh Sarajevo winter, the citizens of Sarajevo were forced to look for firewood to keep warm. They learned how to cut, split and stack wood. Balconies and living rooms became warehouses for wood.

"The birch tree had been planted 15 years ago, when we moved in. It was a small tree that we were all taking care of, as if it were a child. The birch tree has grown up to the sixth floor. The only thing was that we could look through the window and see the birch tree that gave us shade, and simply the leaves flickering meant something. It meant that there was life in the yard. Then, one evening, when it was usually quiet, we were just expecting the sound of shells or anti-aircraft guns or anti-aircraft machine-guns, or whatnots, we heard the sound of a chainsaw. That was a sign that somebody came to cut down our birch tree. Whether to burn it or to sell it, we knew that nobody would really get warm from it. It wasn't much of a tree for heating. But for us, it was a symbol of life in that yard. We all ran out. All the neighbours came out. And the two young men who came to cut down that birch tree got very scared, because they realized that we were defending a birch tree as if we were fighting a whole company of enemy troops."

- Zdravka Gutić, housewife (Oral History, October 1992)

Recycling

The citizens of Sarajevo realized that they had to create an alternative way of life in order to survive. One of the important aspects of this new way of life was the repurposing of objects in order to replace everything that was not available during the siege. Inventions and recycled objects became survival tools. New furnaces were created, alternative ways of supplying electricity were invented, gardens have been planted on balconies and in front of buildings.

The Stove

Milenko made a stove out of a theater spotlight; it heated the apartment during the four years of the siege.

During the severe winters, the citizens of Sarajevo, in the absence of heating, were forced to make improvised stoves from everyday objects: theater spotlights, tin boxes for biscuits, water heaters, hospital nightstands or pressure cookers - all with the aim of keeping themselves and their families warm at least a little. Very often only one room in an apartment, one office or an operating room in a hospital was heated.

What would be the most important event in your neighbourhood during the siege?

We received plastic sheets to put on the windows during the winter.

year of birth: 1969
profession: Electrician
gender: Male
city district: Centre

The new normal

The siege of Sarajevo showed that a person can survive a disaster and remain a human being. Sarajevo chose culture as its weapon of defense against terror. Citizens walked the streets under the impact of grenades and snipers to perform their daily tasks of survival, went to theater performances and exhibitions as a way of resistance and defense of the human civilization. A new normal has set in. One civilization disappeared, and a completely new one was simultaneously established in its wake.

Describe your day at work

"Getting up. Walking to the academy where I work as a professor of drawing and painting. Chatting with students who had the guts to come to lectures that day. I must include gathering firewood in my daily activities. It is usually made up of old frames and similar junk. Everything I find I stuff into my backpack, without which I don't leave home. Every time I go out, it's a risk. Once I get home, I eat lunch with my son and wife, and then work at the atelier until the cold runs me out, or daylight allows it. In the past several weeks my wife and I have been working on smaller paintings, so we could also work in the kitchen, which is the only place in the apartment that we can keep warm. After this, I read under candlelight, and then sleep. A Sarajevo night lasts really long."

- Nusret Pašić, painter

In ‘92 we put our winter clothes on and didn’t take them off the whole winter. We slept in our clothes because of the night shelling - we often had to get up and go to the basement.

Switching to winter-time

"We joked in September ’93 when the time came to put our clocks and watches back. To move from summer-time to winter-time according to European standards. We said we shouldn't do it. I remember saying to Muhamed Kreševljaković who was mayor of Sarajevo that we shouldn’t do it because time in Sarajevo was differently reckoned and experienced."

- Haris Pašović, director (Oral History, September 1993)

Perception

The need to establish some kind of balance in the midst of chaos arose spontaneously. In order to maintain mental health, every citizen of the besieged Sarajevo tried to keep himself in balance by bringing his old way of life to the now changed conditions.

Then...



"This was actually a continuation of the tradition which was established in March of 1993, when the two of us for the first time took our skis and started to ski down Soukbunar street, down Gaj street in Sarajevo. While shells kept falling around and people ran about and then they saw those two characters who had their skis on, like from some other world. I was shooting a movie, a video letter, for my girlfriend in Sweden and I wanted to show her how we lived, what we did. And I shot the skiing because it was something impossible. Totally impossible. Through the skiing I projected my dreams. Because I dreamt about going to the Bjelašnica, the Jahorina mountains, to I don’t know where, and skiing. And of course, it couldn’t be done. So, I shot the video. The two of us skiing down Dalmatinska street, the shells falling around, but without sound, with music over it. And it looked like some tourist postcard from, I don’t know, Sestriere."

- Enes Zlatar, musician (Oral History, February 1994)

Now...



"As silly as it sounds, my skiing thirty years ago during the siege of Sarajevo, in addition to music, was a saving grace for me. Something that kept me… kept me sane. When I look at this video that you sent me - what I said thirty years ago about that skiing and what I thought then, I feel absolutely the same way and I think absolutely the same way today. And there are few things in life about which you do not change your attitudes and opinions in the span of thirty years. But here, this is one of those rare things. This speaks of how important it was, and still is, in my life."

- Enes Zlatar, musician (December 2023)

Through that skiing I projected my dreams, because I dreamt about going to the Bjelašnica and Jahorina mountains, to I don't know where, and skiing. And, of course, it couldn't be done.

- Enes Zlatar