Bosnia Field Report: Seeing Sarajevo

August 16, 2010 | Jessie Beauchaine

From Associate Producer Jessie Beauchaine, on location in Bosnia and Herzegovina:

Sarajevo’s Old Town thrums with energy tonight. The sun dips behind the mountains that encircle the city and a canon explosion reverberates off the ancient stone walls, signaling the start of iftar, the communal meal that marks the end of the day’s fast. The month of Ramadan has just begun. Muslim families, Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and tourists from around the world all mingle and stroll the narrow cobblestone streets on the hunt for a table at one of the neighborhood’s many open-air cafes. The smell of grilling meat hangs heavily in the air.

Fifteen years ago, Sarajevo was a very different place. As the epicenter of a bloody three-sided fight for territory, Bosnia’s capital city was a war zone. Streets pitted from shell explosions, blown-out houses, barbed wife and bullet-riddled buildings marred every city block. Civilians of all ethnicities fell victim to atrocities when Orthodox Serb nationalists encircled the city with heavy artillery and snipers. The siege of Sarajevo lasted 44 months and killed more than 11,000. The war, which ultimately lasted three and a half years and engulfed the whole country, killed some 100,000 people and forced more than 1 million civilians to flee their homes.

A decade and a half later, most buildings and roads around Old Town have been resurfaced. The muezzin’s call to prayer mingles with the throaty gong of bells from the local Orthodox Church a few blocks away. If you spent all your time in Old Town, in the crowded cafes and amongst the rug vendors and coppersmiths selling traditional hammered coffeepots, you might justifiably think the war’s a distant memory.

In the past few days, however, I’ve spent long afternoons with women for whom the war is still an everyday reality. Over countless cups of Turkish coffee, I sat and listened as they shared their stories of survival with me. Many fled their villages in eastern Bosnia during the start of the war, when Serb fighters marched in and began rounding up non-Serb civilians. Many of these women lost their sons and husbands during this time, when the men were dragged off to torture camps or shot and dumped into mass graves or into the storied Drina, the historic river that unofficially marks the border between Bosnia and Serbia. Many were also enslaved in the now notorious “rape camps,” where systematic sexual abuse was carried out by Serb soldiers, local paramilitaries and in many cases, former friends and neighbors. Between 20,000 and 50,000 women were victims of this atrocity, most of them Muslims.

In the coming weeks, Women, War & Peace will journey to places where some of the war’s worst atrocities against Bosnia’s women took place. For many of these women, the struggle to create peace and justice in their lives and in their communities is ongoing. In the words of one woman I met with this week, “Most of the time I feel pretty strong. But it takes only someone saying something, or a certain smell or nightmare, and I’m back in 1992. I never know when it’s going to hit me.”