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Bosnia marks anniversary of war

There were tears on Sarajevo's main street as thousands of people marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war.

Bosnians left flowers and gifts on 11,541 red chairs arranged in seemingly endless rows - the number represents the men, women and children killed in a siege that ended up being the longest of a city in modern history. Exhibitions, concerts and performances were held, but the impact of the empty chairs reduced many to tears.

"It's as if the whole tragedy materialised, became visible," said Asja Rasavac. "One cannot even describe the feeling. It's not hatred. It's not anger. It's just endless sadness."

Hundreds of the chairs were small, representing the slain children. On some, passers-by left teddy bears, little plastic cars, other toys or sweets. Of the tens of thousands of passers-by, hardly anyone spoke a word. Many just walked and sobbed, overwhelmed by the length of the red river of empty chairs.

The Serb siege of Sarajevo went on longer than the 900-day siege of Leningrad, now St Petersburg, during the Second World War. Its 380,000 people were left without food, electricity, water or heating for 46 months, hiding from the 330 shells a day that smashed into the city.

On April 6 1992, around 40,000 people from all over the country poured into a square to demand peace from their quarrelling nationalist politicians. The European Community had recognised the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia as an independent state after most of its people voted for independence. But the vote went down along ethnic lines, with Bosniaks and Croats voting for independence, and Bosnian Serbs preferring to stay with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.

The ethnic unity being displayed on the Sarajevo square irritated Serb nationalists, who then shot into the crowd from a nearby hotel, killing five people and igniting the 1992-1995 war. The Serb nationalists, helped by neighbouring Serbia, laid siege to Sarajevo and within a few months occupied 70% of Bosnia, expelling all non-Serbs from territory they controlled.

Bosniaks and Croats - who started off as allies - then turned against each other, so all three groups ended up fighting a war that took more than 100,000 lives, made half of the population homeless and left the once-ethnically mixed country devastated and divided into mono-ethnic enclaves.

Ethnic mistrust is keeping the groups in Bosnia separated. Children in school are learning three different versions of history, calling their common language by three different names - Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian - and are growing isolated from each other in monoethnic enclaves.

Bosnia's leaders are still arguing about whether the country should be unified or should it remain divided. A new generation, children who were born after the war, had only one message for them on Friday. At the end of the ceremony, they lined up among the red chairs and sang John Lennon's song: "All we are saying is give peace a chance."


From Belfast Telegraph