SARAJEVO — To understand the impact on Bosnians of the 1992-95 war, ask anybody in this country old enough to remember it.
From the bellhop who grows morose and silent when questioned about the fighting to the top imam in Bosnia, all have horror stories. A country the size of West Virginia, Bosnia has far more than its share of misery per acre.
Bosnia's Muslims suffered genocide, the worst crimes in Europe since the Holocaust. They were killed, raped, tortured. "Ethnic cleansing" squads forced them from their homes. Livestock and houses were destroyed. Horrific massacres filled mass graves, and other victims starved in concentration camps.
Why did this happen? Yugoslavia was not a country that naturally coalesced over the centuries. Proclaimed at the end of World War I, it was made up of largely Muslim Bosnians, called Bosniacs; Eastern Orthodox Serbs who are traditionally pro-Russian; and Catholics called Croats. Several "republics" operated within the Yugoslav framework.
The history of the former Yugoslavia is complex, with shifting alliances and a succession of parliaments and rulers. Between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, it was ruled by the communist dictator Josip Broz Tito, who managed to keep the country's hostile factions from attacking one another. But after Tito's death in 1980, Yugoslavia began to fracture along ethnic lines.
In 1986, Slobodan Milosevic — an advocate of "ethnic cleansing" against Bosniacs and Croats — took power as Yugoslavia's strongman. "Between 1991 and 1992, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia all seceded from Yugoslavia," says a U.S. State Department Web site.
These republics met varying levels of resistance from the republic of Serbia and local ethnic Serbs. Slovenia easily forced Serb troops out, but Bosnia paid a monstrous toll.
Bosnia-Herzegovina held a referendum in 1992 and proclaimed independence, leading to attacks from ethnic Serbs in this republic. However, some Serbs defended the country.
The international community imposed a weapons embargo against the former Yugoslavia on the theory that if combatants have no guns they can't fight. But Serbia inherited the army of Yugoslavia, the fourth largest in Europe, according to Nedim Hasic, a journalist from Sarajevo who assisted the Deseret Morning News.
While driving through Sarajevo, Adi Sokolija — another translator for the paper — pointed out the high hills around the city. A child when the war began, he and his family left Sarajevo for Zagreb, Croatia. He mentioned recent reports that Serb gunners had artillery in place every 30 meters to shoot down into the capital city.
"It was systematically emplaced so they could shoot any part of Sarajevo. They could choose which part to shoot."
The artillery took aim at civilians, he said.
"At the beginning it was just to make people scared. Later, people standing in rows for water and bread, that was more fierce. They shot at people that were waiting just to have a piece of bread."
War repairs are under way throughout Bosnia, but many towns remain badly scarred. Major buildings are still burned-out ruins in Sarajevo, and bullet marks still scar buildings. One large building clearly shows where a machine gun was aiming for a window, possibly to take out a sniper. An arc of pockmarks leads across a wall to a corner of the window, where many shots are concentrated.
"A lot of children, actually, were killed," Sokolija continued. They were targeted, he said. "A lot of children waiting in rows for bread and water, part of those were killed."
He said about 1,700 children were killed in Sarajevo, and, of course, many adults died. "You know, people cannot understand why someone would kill children."
The siege of Sarajevo went on for three years, he said, but the Serbs were not able to take over. Ethnic Serbs living in Sarajevo helped in its defense, he added.
"There are a lot of heroes here. A lot of people fought for the freedom." Many of his relatives were wounded and "I have a lot of friends that fought here."
Sokolija's cousin, Djenana Hondjo, lived in Jablancia, about 25 miles north of Mostar. Mostar, she said as Sokolija translated, was "the most devastated town in Bosnia. It was shelled a lot."
While Jablancia wasn't hit much by artillery fire, she said, she could hear shooting, and the town was occupied by Croats.
"After the Serbs the Croats were not that rough. But it's still rough if you look at it now.... The Croats were with us at the beginning and later they stabbed us in the back. That's what she says," Sokolija said.
Shortly after the war started, she and her family left for Croatia, then returned. "They went there for three months, and they returned to a war zone because they didn't want to be treated as bad as refugees there.
"You're treated like you're a lower form of life, " Sokolija added, "I know that because I was a refugee."
One of the grinding aspects of war, she said, is the uncertainty. "Your future is not defined." Also, there was not enough food anywhere in Bosnia.
She recalled visiting her grandmother's home. "They had a piece of bread and some cheese on it. They would divide it in half and eat it, and that was luxury."
People couldn't turn on the lights and "there were funerals all the time," Hondjo said.
During the war she gave birth to identical twin girls at a field hospital set up in a basement. Her fiance had been killed. He was a volunteer soldier, a scout who went across enemy lines.
"It wasn't a real hospital," Sokolija quoted her. "It was a war hospital. They do all kinds of stuff there." The hospital was in a basement in order to protect wounded soldiers and doctors from bombardment.
In her seventh month of pregnancy, Hondjo needed a Caesarean.
"She had to wait four hours till the doctors operated on some wounded soldiers, Bosnian soldiers. And she was in a lot of pain."
The clinic had one incubator, which had been donated by French doctors. "Nobody knew that day how to turn that incubator on. In the moment she was giving birth, the guy that brought that incubator, he came into the room....
"That was a coincidence, you see? It was luck.... He put that incubator on and saved her children's life."
One of the children had been declared dead. "But there was, you see, another coincidence. There was a Spanish convoy and there was a woman ... anesthesiologist.
"She ran into the basement to help the little baby and she saved her."
The twins, Adna and Dgina, are doing well today. "She's special baby," Hondjo said of the rescued Dgina.
Genocide in Bosnia
The most influential imam in Bosnia, Nezim Halilovic, described what he called "genocide and hard aggression" against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Interviewed in the Islamic Center in Sarajevo, he wore western clothing and a short beard.
He had been the main imam in the town of Konjic, near Mostar. "He was a fighter," said Sokolija, who translated as Halilovic spoke. "He was commandant of the Fourth Muslim Brigade." They achieved a great deal with almost no equipment or guns, he added.
You can see churches standing in the places occupied by the Bosnia-Herzegovina army, Halilovic said. "There were no massive killings of civilians....
"On the opposite side, where those Serbs and Croats were, 614 mosques were destroyed; not one church on this side. And to add to that ... 307 mosques are left damaged. That's out of a total of 1,400 and some mosques."
Private homes of Bosnian Muslims were destroyed as well as industry, he said.
"Bridges and anything that links people and helps them get around, it was all destroyed. Two hundred thousand Muslims and patriots from other nations were killed in Bosnian war."
Around 300,000 people were placed in concentration camps, he said. "About 40,000 women were raped, amongst whom were 10,000 girls."
When investigators dug up one mass grave last year, they found the remains of "an older woman that was approximately 103 years old — she had documents — and her grand-grandchild, that has only three years."
The child was still in the woman's arms. "The cause of this and the people that did this are Serbs," he said.
On July 11, 1995, near Srebrenica, a woman named Jamila noticed a woman in the crowd who wore an expression of pain. Jamila asked her what was wrong.
"And she was saying, 'I'm giving birth."'
Jamila told her, "Hold my hand and hold the hand of the woman next to you." The woman gave birth to a boy.
"It had black, long hair, and it looked clean even though it was just born. She took the child on her stomach."
A Serb ordered her to put the baby on the ground, then stepped on him, killing him, he said.
In downtown Sarajevo, an eternal flame memorial burns, a display of plaques and flowers beside the sidewalk. The memorial was established to honor residents who fought fascists in World War II and who died helping the partisan resistance to the Nazi occupiers. But Bosnians also use it to pay tribute to recent sacrifices for their country.
"Lot of people lay their flowers for the heroes that died defending Sarajevo" during the war of 1992-95, said Sokolija.
David Schwendiman, a prosecutor from Utah who is in Sarajevo working on war crime cases, has more insight than most Americans concerning the impact of the atrocities. A former assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City, he is assisting the prosecutor's office of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Schwendiman is among six international legal officers on the staff.
"I thought I was tough" because of his earlier experience prosecuting violent crimes, Schwendiman noted by e-mail.
"Nothing, nothing prepared me for the intensity and the sheer volume of all of this. The human wreckage is enormous.
"The physical damage as you noticed is all around, but the human damage is even more pervasive. I have only begun to not see the shell craters and the 'Sarajevo roses' (bullet marks) on the walls and streets."