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I remember the first time I saw shells fall: it was evening in early April, 1992. I heard a muffled blast and looked out the window. The sun had just set, and I saw that familiar, purplish-grey haze creeping toward the mountains west of Sarajevo.
Suddenly a projectile flew by, hitting the TV station building. A moment later another fell on the road in front of the building—and then another, and another. With each hit, you could see a small rush of smoke first; the sound of the explosion took a second to reach us, watching from our apartment over a kilometer away. We kept staring out the window, trying to make out what happened. Is it badly damaged? Can you see anything there? The brutalist structure stood there silently, giving no answer.
I don’t think of the shelling as some shattering of my innocence. I was about to turn fifteen, and I knew war in Bosnia was possible, even though most people, including my entire family, had been convinced it was extremely unlikely. I had already seen TV footage from Vukovar, a town in neighboring Croatia, leveled to the ground by the Serbian paramilitaries who were now closing in on my city. Just a month before that April evening, some armed, masked men stopped my family at a checkpoint that they had erected overnight. Like all Sarajevan teens, I couldn’t escape the intense political arguments before the outbreak of the war. “Why are ‘they’ doing this?” was the common refrain—they the politicians, they the generals, they the masked men.
After I saw the first shells fall that evening, a different, childlike thought occurred to me: Do they know we’re here? There must be some reason, I wanted to believe, some explicable tactic at work—they’re just shelling the TV station to knock out the signal; they don’t want to kill us.
More shelling followed that night in a speechless refutation of such wishes. In the dark we heard explosions from several directions. By morning we could see the shells were falling blindly, striking nearby buildings and roads, hitting no particular strategic target. Some measure of calm returned, save the occasional sounds of gunfire echoing distantly in the hills around Sarajevo. I went outside and met other neighborhood kids, who had collected shrapnel pieces and began to trade them like marbles.
Three decades later, I am still astonished how hard we worked to avoid the obvious in those early days of the war. This isn’t about us, a neighbor would say confidently: this is a territorial game between Belgrade and Zagreb, and a short-lived one too, since we Bosnians will never fight each other! Someone else would chime in to say no, the key lies in Washington, but the conclusion was the same: now that America has officially recognized Bosnia as an independent state, everyone else is bound to follow; even the mad gunmen. Whatever this is, another neighbor might add, Sarajevo won’t be like Vukovar, that’s for sure. A few more weeks of this chaos—that we can endure, no matter how terrible it is.
It turned out not to be a few more weeks, but rather 1,425 days. At war’s beginning it felt both saner and easier to imagine hopeful scenarios than to face the alternative: that the shelling could continue indefinitely, that it could continue to terrorize us, to wound us, to kill us. It was a terrible thought, the beginning of an abyss—a thought too terrible to grasp but which you could not ignore for long even though you tried. And we did try and try.
Even as I write this, I doubt myself, wondering whether any of those days really sank in. I just know that it happened: the shelling, the chaos, the fear, the uncertainty. Do they know we’re here? I have no grand answers about what, if anything, my experience means. Over the years I have come to think that maybe such questions are not naive, but pre-political in an ethical sense. We are here. We exist with and for each other, not to serve some finite political goal. Our everyday lives are the bedrock without which no form of politics, strategy, or ideology could exist, even the ideologies that seek to negate or erase our experience.
I don’t know exactly when the phrase “before the war” entered our lives, but it did so with such effortless self-confidence that we hardly questioned this new time, and we’ve been living in its wake ever since.
I directly experienced only the first few weeks of the siege of Sarajevo. In late April my mother took my younger brother and me on one of the last trains out of the city, determined to reach a small Dalmatian village where my aunt had a house, “to stay safe just until things calm down.” My father stayed in the city, telling us at the train station somewhat unconvincingly—but I wanted to believe it so badly that I convinced myself anyway—that this will pass quickly, don’t worry, you’ll be back in summertime.
Before the war, I thought bura was just a Dalmatian word for a storm, but it is really a cold, northerly wind that can turn everything upside down. It sweeps across Dalmatia in winter, whipping up sea foam on the Adriatic, slinging it in wild gusts, leaving everything in its wake covered with a thin coat of salt. On days when the bura ferociously rattled our windows and doors, on nights when we had no electricity in our village, we had so much time to travel in our minds back to besieged Sarajevo: Are they shelling our city again? What is my father doing? Does he have enough to eat or drink? What about our friends, our family, our schoolmates? Are they alive? When will we know?
The Serb forces that maintained the siege for all those years are responsible for an estimated 10,000 deaths in Sarajevo. My father happened to survive, eventually leaving the besieged city and reuniting with us after three years of separation. By then my mother, brother, and I were in the United States. Among many shocking things, I was disoriented by meeting many Americans who talked about our arrival as a prefigured happy ending to our war story.
Watching Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine—the first shellings; the chaotic goodbyes as families separate, hands pressed against train windows; the devastation of Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kyiv—has brought these memories flooding back.
The war in Bosnia happened in Europe, but it’s not a part of European history. Most narratives of Europe’s twentieth century wind through an array of catastrophes on their way to a reassuring present—a satisfying end—in which the European Union, despite its problems, stands for peace, prosperity, respect for human rights, and other noble values. Seen from that viewpoint, the violent dismemberment of Yugoslavia in the 1990s appears as a sad but ultimately insignificant aberration from the well-trodden paths of history.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has forced a reckoning with this rosy narrative. Arguments over Europe’s appeasement of Vladimir Putin—as well as Viktor Orbán within the EU—continue to grab headlines. Related debates rage about what the commitment to peace means in the face of Kremlin’s long-running imperial wars in Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine.
The war in Bosnia, however, remains a blind spot. There are many reasons for this elision; Western perceptions of the Balkans as a periphery, an ambiguous region between Europe and the Middle East that is part of neither, is one. Another is the longer history of Islamophobia that connects the Balkans to the notion of Europe as an essentially Christian and White place where Muslims don’t properly belong. Precisely because they wanted to assert themselves as European, many Balkan politicians in the past century have tried to Westernize their countries by erasing Ottoman legacies and Muslim peoples living in this region.
Radovan Karadžić was one such politician. A small-time swindler turned poet-prophet in the late 1980s, Karadžić cast himself as a Serbian defender of Europe against Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, whom he collectively described as “fundamentalists” and “terrorists.” Several months before April 1992, he foretold “the disappearance of the Muslim people” in Bosnia. Few took him seriously before he turned to war to seize territories and try to make his threat into a reality. While Western officials publicly responded to the 1990s war with appeals for all sides to embrace peace, behind the scenes they tacitly accepted the Islamophobic logic of Karadžić’s vision. In line with French and American leaders’ views of Bosnia, “British officials also spoke of a painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe.”
As a historian, I think my profession can confront these issues, but a deeper—and fundamentally narrative—problem remains: the desire for history to ultimately deliver a happy ending, some reassuring overcoming of past bigotry or some inkling that the future will be better than the past. That is where I sense most clearly the limitations of my historical craft. In the thirty years since war broke out in Bosnia, a lot of what has transpired in the country has been distilled into a few big words: nationalism, fascism, genocide. All fittingly describe parts of what happened there, and I often write about these abstractions. But I also know those words are like a net, capable of dragging some large object to the surface while letting the sea seep back into itself.
Some years after the war, I returned to our old apartment in Sarajevo. A number of families had lived in our place after my father left; we knew the first one that moved in, but not the ones that came and left afterwards. At some point, we filed for restitution and, after years of back-and-forth paperwork, received a court notice that the apartment was legally ours. When I went back for the first time since 1992, our place was totally empty; even the kitchen and bathroom sinks were removed and the walls repainted and altered.
I bought a plastic chair at a nearby market and went back again. It was evening and I sat for a while, remembering things from before the war, looking at how much the neighborhood had changed, listening to strange and familiar sounds. And just after the sun set, I saw the purplish-gray haze, the TV station building, the mount Igman and thought—what a beautiful city Sarajevo is.
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