It’s the city where East meets West. On Ferhadija street in the heart of Sarajevo,
the grand Austro-Hungarian architecture of Christian Europe suddenly gives way to the
low roofs and timber frames of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. For centuries, this was the multicultural
epicenter of Europe, a city where Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians all
rubbed shoulders. But Sarajevo is something else, too. It’s the city where the ethnic tensions
of the former Yugoslavia finally snapped, created bloodshed on an unprecedented scale. For 1,425 days in the early 1990s, Bosnian-Serb
forces laid siege to Sarajevo. Shells pounded hospitals and marketplaces. Snipers murdered children in the streets. How did it come to this? How did a city famed for its melting pot of
cultures become ground zero for a bloody ethnic conflict? Today we journey into the history of Sarajevo,
and examine how a beacon of tolerance became divided by hatred. The Field around the Palace
In 1461, an Ottoman nobleman named Isa-Beg Ishaković stood on a low plain in the heart
of the Balkans, surrounded by forested mountains. At his feet, the remains of the Kingdom of
Bosnia lay in ashes, devastated by the Ottoman Army that was sweeping the Balkans. The Bosnian city of Vrhbosna, built in this
very place, was no more. But Isa-Beg Ishaković wasn’t a destroyer. He was a builder. And it was here, on this plain, that he decided
to build Sarajevo. Officially founded in 1461, the origins of
Sarajevo’s name are a mystery. Some sources claim Ishaković’s second act
after building a mosque was to build a housing area known as Saraj, from where the city got
its name. Others have pointed out that Saray was an
Ottoman word for “palace”, while ovasi means “field”. So, Sarajevo would literally be “the field
around the palace.” Fun theories aside, the early city soon established
itself as an important trading outpost on the Ottoman frontiers. By 1470, Ishaković had built Kolobara Han,
a grand wooden inn capable of housing thousands of travelers. Cool fact: that inn still exists. If you’re in Sarajevo, it’s totally possible
to grab a coffee in a building as old as the city itself. Over the next hundred years, Ishaković’s
new city flourished. By the mid-16th Century, his successors had
built 100 mosques on the once-empty plain. Not that Ottoman Sarajevo was a strictly Islamic
city. As early as 1530, an Orthodox Church – known
today simply as “the Old Orthodox Church” – was built near the Mosque. Catholics, too, were a notable minority. They weren’t the only ones. Back in 1492, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand
II of Aragon had signed a colossally dickish decree kicking all the Jews out of Spain. Known as the Sephardic Jews, the exiles spread
across North Africa and Europe. Around 1541, the first of them reached Sarajevo. Since we’re “lucky” enough to live in
a time of casual intolerance, you might be expecting to hear that the Sarajevans had
problems with this sudden influx of newcomers. You’d be wrong. Not only did the ruling Ottomans allow the
Sephardi to build their own Jewish quarter in Sarajevo, a Muslim Turk even stumped up
the cash for a synagogue. It was an arrangement that allowed the city’s
Jews to thrive. Come the 17th Century, Sarajevo was known
as Little Jerusalem. Not coincidentally, the 17th Century is seen
as Sarajevo’s golden age. Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Jews all
lived side by side amid the city’s wooden Ottoman architecture. But already, there was darkness on the horizon. Before the end of the century, an almighty
storm would come and sweep everything away. The Borderland
OK, so we need to backtrack a little. Remember when we mentioned the Ottoman Army
sweeping through the Balkans back in 1461? Well, they didn’t stop at the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century was
an expansionist superpower. Their armies were second to none. By the time the Old Orthodox Church was being
built in Sarajevo in 1530, those armies had come crashing into Central Europe. It was here the Ottomans finally collided
with the other superpower that would shape Sarajevo’s history: Austria. The wintery dominion of the Catholic Habsburgs,
imperial Austria was as far from the heat and bustle of Sarajevo’s markets as is possible
to imagine. In 1529, the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna,
determined to bring it into the Muslim fold. Although they failed to breach the city, it
didn’t stop their expansionism. Ottoman armies captured swathes of neighboring
Hungary. In 1683, they laid siege to Vienna again. This time, though, the Habsburgs were ready. Thanks to one of those complex arrangements
that were such a feature of pre-modern royalty, the Habsburgs weren’t just rulers of Austria. They were also emperors of the gigantic Holy
Roman Empire. And that meant they could call on one heck
of an army to fight back the invaders. By October 1697, that one heck of an army
had driven the Ottomans back to Bosnia. The Habsburgs marched into Sarajevo, torched
everything, then marched back out again, taking most of their fellow Catholics with them. The fire that raged burned left Sarajevo in
ashes. It was just the start of a series of catastrophes
that would befall the city. The next hundred-odd years in Sarajevo can
be summed up by three terrifying words: fire, plague, and death. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that the
city finally reemerged as its old, tolerant self. Unfortunately no sooner had things stabilized
than the rest of the Balkans decided to explode. The 19th Century started with two major revolutions
against Ottoman rule, one in Serbia and one in Greece. This kickstarted two very important strands
of Balkan thought. One was a kind of romantic nationalism, which
for Serbs meant uniting all the south Slav peoples into a single nation. That included the population of Sarajevo,
whether they worshipped God, Allah, or Jehovah. The second was a new determination to kick
the Ottomans out the Balkans entirely. In 1877, that second point got a shot in the
arm from the Russo-Turkish War. Pitting – as the name might suggest – the
might of Imperial Russia against the Ottoman Empire, the war was nominally about Russia
supporting its oppressed Slavic brothers in the Balkans, and actually about Russia nabbing
some prime real estate on the Black Sea. Nonetheless, Russia’s resounding victory
still managed to dislodge the Ottomans from Bosnia. Jubilant Serbs assumed this meant they could
now get on with their whole ‘uniting the South Slavs’ plan. Boy, were they in for a disappointment. In an unexpected move, the postwar conference
instead threw permission to occupy Bosnia to the Ottoman Empire’s old enemy: the Habsburgs. On July 29, 1878, the Austrian successor state,
the Austro-Hungarian Empire, marched into Bosnia. By August 18, they’d reached Sarajevo. When local Ottoman loyalists tried to resist,
the army shelled the city. Finally, on August 19, they captured it. That same day, Ottoman rule ended in Sarajevo. A new era began for the city, one that would
eventually see Sarajevo become the spark for one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. The Road to Crisis
For Bosnian-Serbs in Sarajevo, the appearance of the Catholic Habsburgs was a gigantic slap
in the face. Having seen their fellow Serbs in Serbia proper
throw off Ottoman rule and found an independent state, they’d been kind of hoping to join
them. So the replacement of Ottoman rule with Austrian
rule in 1878 was sort of like the great powers lining up one by one to kick every single
Bosnian-Serb right in the genitals. Not that Sarajevo was officially under Austrian
rule. Technically, Bosnia remained part of the Ottoman
Empire, even if in reality the Austro-Hungarians were calling the shots. And the Austro-Hungarians were desperate to
buy their new subjects’ loyalty. In Sarajevo, the Habsburgs went on a building
spree, pouring money into the crumbling city. Sarajevo got the first tram system in the
whole of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It got electricity before Vienna. Half the buildings got a facelift, bringing
them in line with Austrian architectural styles. If that all sounds pretty benign, you should
know it was actually kinda cynical. The conservative Habsburgs were extremely
wary of newfangled technology like electricity. If it all went spectacularly wrong they wanted
Sarajevo to suffer the consequences, not Vienna. Still, life in Sarajevo generally improved. The city’s Jews were granted new freedoms
under the Austrians. Islam became an official religion of the Empire. Sarajevo’s Catholics got a new cathedral. By 1908, things were going so well that the
Habsburgs decided to formally annex Bosnia. And just like that, the manure went crashing
into the fan. The crux of 1908’s Bosnian Crisis was that
Serbia had been waiting for the Ottoman Empire’s now-inevitable collapse with the hopes of
taking Bosnia for themselves. When the Habsburgs instead annexed it, pan
Slavic feeling ran so high that Serbia nearly got Russia to attack Austria on their behalf. It was only when Germany threatened to attack
Russia in retaliation that Russia backed down, leaving Serbia isolated and humiliated. If there’s one thing you don’t want to
do as an empire at the turn of the 20th Century, it’s humiliate Serbia. The Shot Heard Round the World
28 June is a serious day for Serb nationalists. It’s the date the Ottoman Empire defeated
Serb forces at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 – a foundational myth sometimes described
as the Serbian Alamo. Unfortunately for history, it was also the
anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s wedding. The heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz
Ferdinand had married Duchess Sophie in 1899 at the objections of his family. The trouble was, Sophie was from a lower social
rank. So disgusting did the conservative Habsburgs
find this that Sophie was forbidden from taking part in any displays of royal pomp. However, a minor loophole existed for “unofficial”
visits to various parts of the empire. Visits without the usual Habsburg pageantry…
or security. And so it was that, on June 28, 1914 – a
day of violent importance to nationalist Serbs – Franz Ferdinand – part of family hated
by those same Serbs – decided to treat his wife to an unofficial visit to Sarajevo, a
city crawling with angry Bosnian-Serbs. Hard to see how that one could go wrong, huh? Now, “unofficial” didn’t mean the couple
just stepped off the train unannounced. There were still notices in the newspapers,
still a police convoy laid on. But there was nothing like the security that
had accompanied Emperor Franz Josef’s visit to Sarajevo in 1910. To throw out an analogy, this was like JFK
deciding to ride around Dallas in an open-topped car. And 1914’s Lee Harvey Oswald was already
waiting. As the royal couple arrived in Sarajevo that
fateful day, members of the Serbian Black Hand group had already taken up position along
their motorcade route. Armed with guns and explosives, the assassins
were the suicide bombers of their day, ready to unleash chaos. But even these extremists couldn’t have
imagined just how many people they would ultimately kill. As the motorcade passed along the river, Nedeljko
Cabrinovic hurled two grenades at the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Luckily, they both missed, blowing up the
car directly behind the royal couple. Less luckily, the Austrian heir refused to
believe the attack meant he was unsafe in Sarajevo. In one of history’s biggest ‘what the-?’ moments, Franz Ferdinand made his driver stop
after they reached Sarajevo’s Austrian-built city hall. There, he made the fateful decision to visit
those wounded in the attack in hospital. Ignoring the pleas of everyone to just RUN,
damnit!, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie turned their car around and drove straight back up
beside the river to the scene of the attack. There, by the Ottoman Latin Bridge, a Black
Hand member called Gavrilo Princip was loitering, depressed that the assassination had failed. What he felt when he saw the Austrian archduke
driving back towards him, a ridiculous ostrich feather flapping in his cap, is something
we will never know. All we do know is that Princip didn’t hesitate. As the car approached, he stepped out into
the street, raised his gun… …and fired the shot heard round the world. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie
on that Sarajevo street changed history. Thanks to a complex web of alliances, Austria-Hungary’s
subsequent invasion of Serbia dragged in all the other European great powers and, well,
you know the rest. WWI claimed about 20 million lives. When the dust settled in November 1918, the
Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires had all come crashing down. No sooner had the defeated Austrians left
Sarajevo than the city’s government declared Bosnia part of the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia
(at that stage known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes). Finally, the nationalist dream had been realized. Sarajevo was now part of a united south Slav
nation. It’d all be good news from here. Right? Cracks Appear
To say that cracks soon appeared in this new “united” nation is to severely underestimate
just how quickly everything fell apart. Since we don’t have time for all the ins
and outs – not unless you want this video to last 27 hours and end with Simon dying
of dehydration – the Sparknotes version is that the Serbs and Croats almost immediately
fell out over everything and tried to settle their differences by assassination. In Sarajevo, all this violence generally passed
people by, mainly thanks to Sarajevo being downgraded by Belgrade to the Yugoslav equivalent
of Nebraska. But even becoming a provincial backwater couldn’t
keep these divisions out the city forever. It started on April 6, 1941, when the Axis
launched a surprise attack on Yugoslavia. By April 15, fascist troops were marching
into Sarajevo. Under the Nazi’s watchful eye, Sarajevo
was incorporated into a new Croatian puppet state ruled by a group called the Ustaše. Hardcore Croatian fascists, the Ustaše were
more than willing to get into bed with the Nazis if it meant getting their own state
without the hated Serbs. To that end, they opened concentration camps
where they murdered Serbs by the thousands. In Sarajevo, though, they had other targets. Remember how Sarajevo had earned the nickname
Little Jerusalem? By WWII’s end, this would seem like an ugly
and depressing joke. Before 1941 was out, Sarajevan Jews were being
deported. In no time at all, 85 percent of the city’s
Jewish population had been wiped out. It would never recover. Across the rest of fascist Croatia, massacres
piled upon massacres. Ustaše troops tortured and raped, while Serbian
partisans known as Četniks murdered Croats in turn, and Bosniak Muslims were caught in
the crossfire. Yet even now, Sarajevo held together remarkably
well. The city has long had a tradition of its citizens
identifying as Sarajevan first, and everything else second. In WWII, this allowed Sarajevo to become a
hotbed of resistance activity. It was in Sarajevo that the partisan hero
Vladimir “Walter” Perić ran his base of operations, carrying out daring sabotage
attacks before disappearing like some WWII superhero. So damaging were “Walter’s” attacks
that the Croatian fascist commander of Sarajevo, Vjekoslav “Maks” Luburić, had 323 civilians
hanged to try to discourage him. But it wasn’t enough. On April 5, 1945, the whole city rose up against
the fascists in a swell of resistance directed by “Walter”. Within 24 hours, the city had been liberated. One of the last casualties was “Walter”
himself, who died from a grenade wound in the final minutes of the fighting. To this day, a monument stands to him in central
Sarajevo. That November, the old Yugoslavia was reconstituted,
this time as a Socialist republic under dictator Josip Broz Tito. Although the massacres carried out by the
Ustaše and Četniks were still raw, Tito clamped down hard on any politics of grievance. Part Slovene, part Croat, and married to a
Serb, Tito embodied more than anyone the promise of a united south Slav federation. He also knew how to treat those who threatened
that promise. Former Ustaše supporters were executed. Meanwhile Sarajevo, site of south Slav cooperation
in the face of the fascist threat, was rewarded with investment. For the rest of Tito’s long rule, Sarajevo
would no longer be a backwater. It was elevated to capital of the new Bosnian
Federal Republic. Jobs appeared. Money. The population boomed. But we told you way back in the introduction
that Sarajevo is famous today for enduring the longest military siege in modern history. Even as Tito focused on rebuilding his shattered
corner of the Balkans, all he was really doing was papering over the deep cracks WWII had
exposed. It wouldn’t be long before those cracks
split Sarajevo apart. The Last Days of Paradise
In 2017, Balkan Insight ran an article featuring Sarajevans reminiscing about Tito’s rule. Their tales were filled with recollections
of partying through Friday night in multi-ethnic groups, then catching the first train to Croatia’s
coast together to swim hungover in the Adriatic, before returning to Sarajevo on Sunday, singing
as they went. It sounds like a paradise. That may partly be nostalgia talking, but
there’s no doubt that, under Communism, Sarajevo may have experienced its second golden
age. The high point came in 1984, when the city
hosted the Winter Olympics. But even then, dark forces were already working
to tear the united south Slavs apart. The catalyst came on May 4, 1980, when Tito
passed away in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Following his death, the six Yugoslav republics
– Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Macedonia – were all granted more autonomy. This led to a resurgence of nationalism. In 1987, for example, minority Serbs in the
autonomous province of Kosovo rioted against perceived injustices from the Albanian majority. A rising Serbian politician named Slobodan
Milošević realized he could boost his career by fanning the flames of these grievances. He began making speeches warning the Serbs
would take up arms against their countrymen. Not long after, Milošević became president
of Serbia. One of his first acts was annex Kosovo, ending
its status as an autonomous province. For those in Sarajevo, these rumblings must
have seemed ominous, but also detached from their daily lives. Yes, things were getting ugly in politics,
but what did they have to fear in their multicultural city? The next year, 1990, free elections returned
non-Communist, nationalist governments in all six of Yugoslavia’s republics. Although some of them would make a halfhearted
attempt to keep Yugoslavia together, the writing was already on the wall. On June 25, 1991, Slovenia and Croatia simultaneously
declared independence. In Slovenia, this meant a quick, 10 day dust
up that killed under 100 people. In Croatia, under the government of nationalist
Franjo Tudjman, this meant a brutal war that would last 4 years and kill 20,000. It also saw Serbs living in Croatia try to
carve out their own ethnically pure mini-state, lest a new Ustaše under Tudjman do to them
what the real Ustaše did to their grandparents. As Slovenia and Macedonia split away and Croatia
burned, Sarajevo remained mostly quiet. But it was merely the calm before the storm. In October, 1991, the Bosnian parliament in
Sarajevo began shuddering towards independence. That same month, a Bosnian-Serb called Radovan
Karadžić made a speech, hinting at the annihilation of all Muslims should Bosnia secede. At that time, Sarajevo was over 50 percent
Muslim. No-one really believed Karadžić could be
talking literally. Surely it was just a metaphor, designed to
show the depth of his feeling. On March 1, 1992, Bosnia voted to secede from
Yugoslavia in a referendum boycotted by Bosnian-Serbs. Within days, violence was flaring across the
nation, as nationalist leaders and media fanned the flames of hatred. Inside their propaganda bubbles, Serbs only
heard the vilest things about Bosniaks and Croats, and vise-versa. In that poisoned atmosphere it was perhaps
no surprise that armed Serbs might try and storm the parliament building, or that a Bosniak
Muslim gangster might shoot up a Serb wedding. On April 5, 1992, Sarajevo’s innocence finally
ended. A multiethnic crowd marching for peace was
fired upon by Serb snipers. The next day, Bosnian-Serb paramilitaries
began shelling Sarajevo. Within days, Serb army regulars had arrived
with new men and weapons. By May 2, 1992 – barely a month after the
fighting started – Bosnian-Serb units had completely surrounded Sarajevo. From the forested mountains that Isa-Beg Ishaković
had once looked down at his new city from in 1461, snipers and artillery rained death
on a population trapped like rats in a cage. It was the start of the longest siege in modern
history, and the final end of multicultural Sarajevo. Seasons in Hell
The Siege of Sarajevo lasted 1,425 days, from the spring of 1992 to the beginning of 1996. For most of that time, the Bosnian capital
was completely cut off from the outside world. There was no running water. No electricity. No food, no medical supplies, no anything. Under the direction of Radovan Karadžić,
the besieging Serb forces sent the citizens of Sarajevo back to the Stone Age. Muslim Bosniaks, Bosnian-Croats, and moderate
Bosnian-Serbs alike were trapped within Sarajevo’s confines. All of them suffered in ways the rest of us
can’t even begin to imagine. Shells landed day and night, hitting houses,
hospitals, schools, marketplaces. Snipers indiscriminately shot anyone who ventured
onto the city’s streets. Pensioners, pregnant women, and playing children
were all gunned down. For those left in Sarajevo, the siege meant
having to build your own stove out of cut up tin cans. It meant turning every scrap of spare land
in the city into a vegetable plot. It also meant never knowing when death might
come. When a mortar might explode beside a water
pipe and eviscerate the neighbor stood beside you. Still, even in this Hell, there were quiet
moments of hope. Perhaps the most striking was Vedran Smailović,
the Cellist of Sarajevo. A classically trained musician, Smailović
would sit down in freshly bombed buildings and play Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. It was as absurd as it sounds. Yet it also offered a modicum of hope to those
who heard him. As suffering piled upon suffering in Sarajevo,
the international community sat on its hands. They dithered as mortars destroyed classrooms
mid-lesson, killing scores of children. They dithered as the lack of supplies crippled
thousands with malnutrition. And they dithered as the death toll finally
topped 10,000, among them over 1,000 children. Finally, in 1995, one atrocity forced the
international community’s hand. On August 28, ordinary Sarajevans were shopping
in Markale marketplace when five mortar shells landed in the crowds. The effect was like five separate meat grinders
had simultaneously been flicked on. 43 people were obliterated in an instant. When reports reached the West, leaders finally
decided to act. Two days later, NATO jets started bombing
Serb positions around Sarajevo. The new air support coincided with a huge
Croatian military offensive. After a mini-war between themselves, the Croats
and Bosniaks had finally teamed up and turned their combined firepower on the Serbs. By October, 1995, the dual offensives had
broken the siege lines around Sarajevo. Although shelling continued, supplies began
to trickle back in. Electricity was partially restored. On November 21, 1995, at a conference in Dayton,
Ohio, all sides in the war signed a peace agreement, ending the fighting. Bosnia was divided along largely ethic lines,
with Bosniaks and Croats in one part, and Serbs in another. Sarajevo, too, was partitioned, with east
Sarajevo drawn inside the Serb-dominated region. Finally, on February 29, 1996, the last Serb
units left the mountainsides above Sarajevo. The siege was lifted. Below them, the shattered city lay in ruins. In the aftermath, Sarajevo lost what was left
of its multicultural character. One by one, the Serbs and Croats left. By the time of the last Bosnian census, in
2013, Bosniak Muslims made up over 75 percent of the population in all of Sarajevo’s districts. The one exception lay in Serbian east Sarajevo,
which was 96 percent Serb. Reconstruction after the war came slowly,
when it came at all. While you won’t see any burnt out buildings
in Sarajevo today, you can still see bullet holes, alongside subtle signs of continued
ethic division. Yet even in divided Sarajevo there is hope. In April, 2018, the city’s famous cable
car finally reopened, a quarter century after it was destroyed during the siege. For many Sarajevans , the reopening was a
chance to look towards the future of their city, instead of back at a painful past. Indeed, if you visit Sarajevo now, you’ll
be struck by how normal it all is. There are international restaurants, Irish
bars, tourist hordes, museums and cycle lanes… everything you might expect from a European
capital. Sarajevo’s history might be one of a city
ravaged by war, assassinations, and ethnic strife. But it is also one of endless rebuilding in
the face of adversity. Hopefully, the next chapter in the life of
multiethnic Sarajevo will soon be written.