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Sarajevo commemorates war’s anniversary

By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times –

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — As far as the eye could see up and down the main street were rows of red plastic chairs lined up for a memorial concert, but nobody was allowed to sit down. The chairs were set out to mark the 11,541 Sarajevans killed during the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare.

(PHOTO: Map of the former Yugoslavia, with information about the break-up of the country into independent nations in the 1990s. Also contains small historical maps and background on the ethnic hatreds that have marred the region. April marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the war for independence in Bosnia.)

People strolled by with their children, whispering explanations about what had happened. They took photographs and laid flowers. By the end of the day, flowers adorned most of the chairs. On the smallest chairs, set out for the 1,600 children who were among the victims, were teddy bears, toy cars and balloons.

On large screens erected along the street, the names of the victims rolled in a continuous loop, white print on black.

The event Friday was the largest commemoration ceremony ever held in Sarajevo for the three-year-long war that began April 6, 1992.

“It is the catharsis that people really needed,” said Haris Pasovic, the theater director who designed the memorial, picking the color red for the chairs to resemble “a river of blood.”

Twenty years ago, Bosnia-Herzegovina was supposed to be celebrating its independence, one of the new nations cropping up after collapse of the communist bloc. Bosnians had voted overwhelmingly the month before in a referendum to secede from the disintegrating Yugoslavia, as had Croatia and Slovenia the year before. The hope was that by creating, as the referendum called it, “a state of equal citizens … of Muslims, Serbs and Croats,” Bosnia could avoid bloodshed.

But some of the Serbs objected and, although they were a minority, they had the weaponry of the Yugoslav National Army at their disposal.

For three years, they occupied the mountains surrounding Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. They cut off water, food and electricity while subjecting the city to relentless bombardment. As the world watched in horror, snipers picked off civilians, children and old people alike.

The red chairs were set out along Marshal Tito Street, named for Yugoslavia’s late president who is still a popular figure here. Along the route, most of the older buildings are still pocked with shrapnel and bullet holes. Paw-print-shaped scars in the pavement (now filled with red resin as a memorial) show where mortar shells landed in the middle of crowds.

“It is important for us that they are having these ceremonies,” said 18-year-old Emina Rizvic, whose high school class arrived by bus from Zenica for commemorative ceremonies Friday. “Most of us were born in 1993. We were all war babies, but we don’t remember. This is part of the history we need to learn.”

Other high school students were being taken to special showings of “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, which has been praised here for its harrowing depiction of the war crimes committed against Bosnians.

After a massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men in Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, NATO conducted large-scale airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions. The war ended later that year with a treaty reached in Dayton, Ohio, that partitioned Bosnia in two parts — a federation of Muslims and Croats and another of Bosnian Serbs known as the Republika Srpska.

The Bosnian Serbs did not participate in Friday’s ceremonies and largely refuse to acknowledge guilt over the war, which cost 100,000 deaths in Bosnia as a whole.

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, widely viewed as the instigator of the war, died in his cell in 2006 while being tried for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. After a long manhunt, former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and military chief Ratko Mladic were captured. They are now in custody and facing charges before the tribunal.

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