Bosnia still divided, 20 years since war began

People climb on an abandoned tank standing at a crossroads in front of a ruined building in the Kovacici district in Sarajevo, in February 1996 (top) and people walk along the same road on May 30, 2011, in this combination file picture. — Reuters picPeople climb on an abandoned tank standing at a crossroads in front of a ruined building in the Kovacici district in Sarajevo, in February 1996 (top) and people walk along the same road on May 30, 2011, in this combination file picture. — Reuters picSARAJEVO, April 6 — With a line of 11,541 red chairs for each victim of the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia today remembered when war broke out 20 years ago and the West dithered in the face of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War Two.

The anniversary finds the Balkan country still deeply divided, power shared between Serbs, Croats and Muslims in a single state ruled by ethnic quotas and united by the weakest of central governments.

The Serbs, in their own autonomous Serb Republic, will ignore today's solemn remembrance of the day shots fired on peace protesters in downtown Sarajevo marked the start of the 1992-95 war.

Some 100,000 people died and almost half the country's 4.4 million people forced to flee their homes; all on NATO's doorstep, a few hours' drive from Vienna or across the Adriatic from Italy.

“The Sarajevo Red Line is in fact the line of blood that ran down the streets of Sarajevo from April 6, 1992 until 1995,” Sarajevo mayor Alija Behmen said of the long line of red chairs through the centre of the capital.

The siege of Sarajevo by Serb forces that held the hilltops lasted 43 months. Queuing for water or shopping at the market, Sarajevans were picked off by snipers and random shelling. More than 600 children were among the dead.

“We were moving targets with only one priniciple left – that we would stay in the city,” said Bosnian artist Suada Kapic.

After Bosnia's Muslims and Croats voted in a referendum in favour of independence from Yugoslavia, Serb forces with the big guns of the Yugoslav army seized 70 percent of Bosnian territory, driving out non-Serbs in a policy known as “ethnic cleansing”. The Muslims and Croats fought back, and for a time against each other.

The United Nations sent blue-helmeted peacekeepers but gave them no mandate to shoot back. It was only after the so-called U.N. safe haven in Srebrenica fell in July 1995 to Serb forces, who then massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys, did NATO use force, eventually bombing the Serbs to the negotiating table.

Constitutional shake-up

Bosnia taught the West tough lessons in humanitarian intervention that could yet be echoed in Syria, where the United Nations is probing the possible deployment of unarmed monitors under a peace plan to end the conflict between rebels and forces under President Bashar al-Assad.

The Bosnian war ended with a peace deal in 1995 brokered by the United States at a US airbase in Dayton, Ohio.

It silenced the guns but split Bosnia into two ethnically-based regions, power distributed along ethnic lines in a complex state that has stifled development. Bosnia trails far behind the rest of the ex-Yugoslavia on the long road to membership of the European Union.

Bosnia's neighbour Croatia will join the EU in July next year. Serbia, which under strongman Slobodan Milosevic conspired with Croatia to dismember Bosnia, became an official candidate for EU accession last month, in part as reward for capturing Bosnian Serb wartime commander and genocide suspect Ratko Mladic.

Bosnia is yet to apply. To do so, it must first amend its Dayton-era constitution to reflect a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that its strict system of ethnic quotas is discriminatory.

But the Serbs reject any move towards greater centralisation, regarding Bosnia as an artifical construct foisted upon them by outside powers.

Less than half of the 2 million driven from their homes have returned to the towns and villages they left. Once a vibrant blend of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, Sarajevo is now overwhelmingly Bosniak.

Yesterday, cellist Vedran Smailovic, who became an icon of artistic defiance when he played on a central Sarajevo street as the city was shelled, played again for the first time in his hometown since he left in 1993. — Reuters


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