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The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996

“Half of the water for the flowers and half of it for myself”

Macro Story #2: Water

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.

"I had a lot of flowers before the war, but during the war we had to cope as we knew best, so I planted half of our balcony, which is very small, with the flowers I loved the most, and the other half I planted with tomatoes and peppers. It was really successful, and all the neighbours across the way admired my flowers and vegetables. It was very difficult to get water, you see, and to carry it here. I shared the water with my vegetables and roses. Half of the water for the flowers, and half of it for myself." - Rasema Olovčić, housewife

FAMA Collection, Oral History: The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996

Destruction

At the beginning of the siege, Sarajevo's water supply was cut off. All water sources were in the possession of the aggressors, so that the city's water supply from a total of 2,500 litres per second (before the siege) was reduced to only one small spring in the city with a flow of 5 litres per second, and to the Hrasnica spring on the outskirts of the city with ca. 30-40 litres per second. In addition, the citizens of Sarajevo collected rainwater. They used it for drinking, bathing and in the household.

Suddenly the city found itself without water

"The city of Sarajevo, during the war, during the aggression and the siege, got into a very difficult position regarding the water supply. Namely, if we consider that the aggressor came into possession of all the water wells, so that of the total 2,500 litres per second that the city had been receiving before the war, only a smaller well was left. The city had only the Sedrenik well, with about 5 litres per second and on the outskirts the Hrasnica well, with about 30 to 40 litres per second. It was a very difficult situation. Suddenly the city found itself without water. We first started activating the deserted old wells. For example, the Terezije, Toplik and so on, the old individual wells that had been deserted for some reason. Then we drilled new wells with some small pipe wells that could supply the citizens locally." - Prof. Arif Halimić, professor at the Faculty of Civil Engineering

FAMA Collection, Oral History: The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996

Mapping of the Siege of Sarajevo

This was the place where people came with their carts filled with canisters after walking ten kilometres to reach water. This was also the place where cistern where filled which supplied water to citizens. In the city which had waterworks for several hundreds of years, boasted public drinking fountains on every corner the water supply was one of the greatest problems of the siege because the aggressor commanded all the springs, blackmailing the city, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the UN. Citizens gathered rainwater from broken drain-pipes, fetched water from the Miljacka and thawed snow. In 1993 in one of the tunnels leading to Pale, the SOROS Foundation built the waterworks which supplied the city pumps.

FAMA Collection

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

Adaptation

Survival was 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. Going to get water under shell fire, carrying canisters of different sizes and finding new ways to transport as many canisters as possible became part of the daily routine.

FAMA Collection, Encyclopaedia: "The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996"

Rational use of water

"I personally carried 30 litres of waters at a time. Up the hill where I live. It was really a bare existence. And then, the water had to be used rationally. That was still the minimal amount needed for the household." - Ziba Hadžihalilović, citizen

FAMA Collection, Oral History: The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996

The search for water

"Life was so hard. Water was a problem in itself. We went out to get water while mortar shells were falling around us. We had to bring the water back, we all know how it was. A shell kills a man right in front of you, and you just keep going because you're fighting for your life." - Ibrahim Alender, pensioner

FAMA Collection, Oral History: The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996

FAMA Collection, Encyclopaedia: "The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996"

A drop of water, if it could write out its own history, would explain the universe to us.

- Lucy Larcom

FAMA Collection, Encyclopaedia: "The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996"

Can you give us a recipe for mental health?

"Carry 10 five-litre canisters to the brewery every day, if possible twice daily. Success guaranteed." - Timur Mehmedbašić

FAMA Collection, Sarajevo “LIFE” Magazine

How much water is necessary?

"Mostly, we helped each other. But we spent incredible amounts of water, because you use it for all sorts of things, we never even knew that one spends so much water, before we hat to carry it." - Azem Mehmedović, citizen

FAMA Collection, Oral History: The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996

FAMA Collection, Encyclopaedia: "The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996"

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 ways of making carts for transporting canisters from recycled materials were devised.

FAMA Collection, "Art of Survival" Guide

We made a cart for transporting water from sleds and roller skates.

It was necessary to walk for kilometres to get water, we made a cart that can carry 200 litres of water. We needed that much every day. And where we poured, we would wait 10-12 hours for our turn. Every day.

FAMA Collection, "Art of Survival" Guide

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 defence against terror. Citizens walked the streets under the impact of grenades and snipers to perform their daily tasks of survival, went to theatre performances and exhibitions as a way of resistance and defence of the human civilization. A new normal has set in. One civilization disappeared, and a completely new one was simultaneously established in its wake.

FAMA Collection, Sarajevo “LIFE” Magazine

Death was not some far-away notion anymore

"It’s hard to figure out what classical tragedy is. And what tragedy is, in general. But tragedy was all around us: we were a part of tragedy. So it was easy to figure out the meaning of life and death and „Alcestis“ is exactly about that, to figure out what death is. I played one of the „Alcestis“, because it was a version where there were a lot of those women. She is a woman who sacrifices herself. Who agrees to die instead of her husband. All of us had been in those situations. Would I agree this time to go and fetch water and would my husband stay at home, or would my children, it is not important. All of us were sacrificing ourselves for somebody. So, it was one feeling which was familiar to us. Death was not some far-away notion anymore." - Amina Begović, actress

FAMA Collection, Oral History: The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996

I wash my hair with rainwater, so it stays shiny for a long time.

FAMA Collection, "Art of Survival" Guide

FAMA Collection, Encyclopaedia: "The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996"

Fire extinguishing

In addition to the lack of drinking water, the citizens of Sarajevo were constantly forced to use water to extinguish fires that occurred after the shelling of the city.

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...


FAMA Collection, Encyclopaedia: "The Siege of Sarajevo 1992-1996"

Now...



"I know that you have a photo in your archives of this door where I am standing with the canisters. This door looks like this today. I used to pass through that door when I was going to a cistern or somewhere in search of water. Here is the gutter of my building where we collected rainwater or when the snow melts and it was the so-called technical water. This means that we bathed with it in a way that is already known, more or less to everyone, which is to put a basin in the bathtub, then you get into the basin and then my wife sprinkles me with water and I bathe. That water is used to flush the toilet. Since the water is warm, the tiles in the bathroom get wet and then my wife wipes them clean. One of my biggest wartime projects was this well I dug with my neighbours. We had been using it for over two years. It was 7.5 meters deep. We came across clay and that's when we knew we had to dig deeper. So, it didn't matter to us, however straight and deep, that was the code, until we found water.

Today, as far as water is concerned, everything is ordinary, regular, normal. We have water. The only reflex I have left from the war is that when I brush my teeth or when I shave, I don't let the water run, so while I'm brushing my teeth, I turn off the water, then open it again, thus somehow contributing to global water protection. I hope that this well that I showed you will never be used in that way again. But times are complicated, you never know." Nedžad Begović, film director

I hope that this well that I showed you will never be used in that way again. But times are complicated, you never know.

- Nedžad Begović