The sports hall in Split reeked of sweat, not from athletes but from refugees. The basketball floor was jammed full of Bosnians, mostly women and children who had just straggled into town. They slept on blankets, one family per. The court was too small for all of them, so a few hundred refugees were living on the bleacher seats. It was May 1992. Many of the Bosnians had not showered since the war began a month earlier, having been trapped in basements all the time or scrambling through forests. The wait for the gym showers was so long that, days after arriving in Croatia, most had not begun the first step of cleansing their bodies. Just six weeks before, some of them had been well-groomed doctors and lawyers, but now they smelled like livestock. It was only the smallest insult the war had bestowed on them.
- Peter Maas, "Love Thy Neighbor"
When you walk down the street in Sarajevo and look at the people that pass you by, it is often difficult for the outside observer to comprehend who the ethnic groups are and the reasons for the conflict between them. Muslims, Serbs, and Croats-- all look identical, born of the Slavic stock, speaking the same language, and wearing the same clothes. Even the Muslims are not your stereotypical Islamic followers that come to mind, as they are more like their Serb or Croat counterparts, feasting on pork and alcohol, dressed in ties or miniskirts, and watching MTV. In fact, the only way to distinguish the 'ethnic groups' from one another is through their names-- for example, Alija would be a Muslim name, and Milutin would be a Serb name. With such few differences between these three ethnic groups, what could possibly stoke the flames of war?
To understand the roots of the brutal Siege of Sarajevo, it is probably best to start at the beginning. In 1389, an invading Turk army defeated the Serbian army at Kosovo Poje, and for the next five hundred years, much of the former Yugoslavia was under Turkish rule. During this time, many of the indigenous Slavic people of the region converted to Islam, and these 'new' Muslims became the privileged class, holding most of the land, the positions of power in the government, and the professional occupations. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the late nineteenth century, the territory changed hands many times, as it was invaded in turn by the Austrians, the Hungarians, and the Germans. And despite the political turmoil, the Muslims had managed to hold onto their positions of power and prominence, often at the expense of their Serb counterparts, who were never able to escape the vicious circle of oppression. Up until the 1990s, the stratification of Bosnian society was still maintained, with the majority of the Muslims living in the cities, whereas the majority of Serbs and Croats lived in the countryside.
Throughout the decades of Communist rule, the leader of the Yugoslav Federation, Marshal Tito, ruled with an iron-hand, suppressing any nationalist movements among the different ethnic factions, and the long-simmering ethnic tensions faded. However, following his death in the 1980s, Yugoslavia was ruled by a rotating presidency that attempted to balance the power equally among the six republics and two autonomous provinces. By 1987, Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia, the largest republic of Yugoslavia, riding the mandate of nationalism, urging Serbs everywhere to take control of their own destiny. The flames of nationalism soon spread across Yugoslavia, with the largest eruptions in Croatia and Kosovo.
Croatia was the first republic to seek independence, and it became locked in a standoff with Serbia over the fate of the half-a-million Serbs that lived within the breakaway republic. Unwilling to give up a third of its territory to Serbia, the two republics went to war in the summer of 1991, and the conflict led to thousands of deaths until the United Nations were able to broker a truce in January of 1992.
Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) was the next republic to opt-out of Yugoslavia, fearful of the extremist direction that the Yugoslav Federation was headed in. At the time, the republic with a population of 4.4 million, divided between 44% Muslim, 31% Serb, and 17% Croat, had always been a model of peaceful coexistence for Yugoslavia, without any one ethnic group dominating another, and the Bosnians wished to maintain their multi-ethnic egalitarian state. A referendum held on February 29, 1992 voted overwhelmingly for independence, with 99% in favor, and BiH gained international recognition for its independence, a move that the Bosnian government had hoped would avoid the bloodshed of Croatian secession just a few months prior. However, despite the overwhelming majority of the referendum, voting had not been allowed in many of the Serb-dominated regions of BiH, due to a boycott called by radical Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karazdic. Playing on the fears of genocide at the hands of a Muslim majority government, Serb paramilitary groups, with assistance from the Yugoslavian National Army (JNA), declared a separate Serb state, and began a program of systematic 'ethnic cleansing' and conquest throughout BiH.
Oh please, do not tell me this is happening in Sarajevo.
- final words of Suada Dilberovic, first victim of the Siege
At this time, in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo, the capital of BiH, units of the JNA began digging in, setting up artillery positions overlooking the city. These efforts culminated between April 5th and 6th, when Serb aggressors (so-called "Chetniks"), set up barricades around Sarajevo in a bid to overthrow the Bosnian government. A peaceful protest by thousands of unarmed citizens was met by gunfire that originated from the top floor of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, and it was this incident that marked the beginning of the four-year Siege of Sarajevo. Over the next four years, many acts and visions of horror would become commonplace in the cosmopolitan city: the constant sniper attacks that made the simple act of crossing the street a life-and-death struggle, the shelling of starving Sarajevans lining up for bread or water, the lack of electricity and running water, the chopping down of all the city's trees for firewood during the brutally cold winters, the makeshift morgues in sports stadiums, the Serbian death squads that emptied apartment buildings of its Muslim residents, and the burning down of the Zetra Sports Hall, the home of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.
We're not here to help... we're here to report.
"Welcome to Sarajevo", from director Michael Winterbottom, is based on the book "Natasha's Story" by journalist Michael Nicholson. It chronicles the depravity of life in the besieged city during the first two years of the Siege, told from the point of view of British reporter Michael Henderson (Stephen Dillane), an apt metaphor for the inaction of the West during the Balkan War. While on his daily runs in the war-torn city with his cameraman (James Nesbitt) and his producer (Kerry Fox), dodging sniper fire and the ever-present mortar attacks, he becomes increasingly disenchanted at being a mere voyeur of the 'war-porn' that he must endure, feeling powerless to do anything about it. Following his coverage of a bread-line massacre (an unflinching recreation of the mortar attack on Vaso Miskin Street that killed 28 and wounded 160 people on May 27,1992), he feels compelled to do something, and he finds his reason in an orphanage close to the front-lines. Filing a series of reports, Henderson begins a campaign to help spirit these children out of the city, especially a nine year old girl named Emira (Emira Nusevic) that he has become attached to.
Children are dying in the most dangerous corner of the most dangerous city on earth. But this plane is flying out of here empty.
Winterbottom combines both dramatic film footage and stock news footage to show the horrors of the Siege of Sarajevo, similar to the technique used in "Riot in the Streets". It is an unrelenting assault of the graphic carnage and the inhumane acts of brutality that were commonplace. It is a powerful film that puts a face on the countless victims of the war, re-sensitizing the audience to the true horror of life within the city's boundaries, without resorting to the cliched melodrama that would have resulted in the hands of a less-capable director. The most prominent message that Winterbottom has for the audience is to rail against the inaction of the West in putting a stop to the conflict, unwilling to commit military action to what they deemed to be an 'internal matter'-- in essence, becoming unwitting co-conspirators to the daily slaughter. Using news footage of various press conferences by Western leaders and United Nations officials, Winterbottom drives this point home, particularly with one sequence set to the tune of Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy".
Bush Turns Aside Bosnian Plea for Military Intervention
- The Washington Post, July 10, 1992
Unfortunately, the topic of the Bosnian conflict has often been trivialized to the point of ennui. In fact, I can remember watching "The Tonight Show" in 1992, and listening to host Jay Leno make a joke about 'Bosnians in Waco' (a more recent example of how trivial the Bosnian conflict has become would be last fall's "The Peacemaker", which glossed-over the subject matter with inaccuracies and oversimplifications). By 1993, many viewers began to tune out of the daily news reports, and it disappeared into the hum of background noise, supplanted by more 'newsworthy items'. Winterbottom took several steps to overcome this lack of interest in the subject matter. For one, right or wrong, WTS's protagonist is an Englishman with the semi-glamorous job of war correspondent, which provides Western audiences a character they can identify with. And like the comment from the cocky American reporter Flynn (Woody Harrelson), who says "back home no one has ever heard of Sarajevo, but everyone has heard of me", the stunt casting of Harrelson ("Palmetto") and Marisa Tomei ("My Cousin Vinny") into minor roles gives the marketers at Miramax a selling point for this film. The film also avoids going into the history and genesis of the conflict and though it reduces the scope of the story to a manageable level, some additional exposition would have been useful for creating a better understanding of the significance of some scenes. However, one aspect that Winterbottom would not budge on, despite the protestations of the top brass at Miramax, was the title, "Welcome to Sarajevo".
Welcome to the fourteenth worst place on Earth.
"Welcome to Sarajevo" is a powerful film, elegantly crafted and uncompromising in its vision. It tackles the difficult subject matter of the Bosnian conflict masterfully, and as you watch the events unfurl on the screen, you cannot help but be saddened... and outraged.