Bosnians mark 20 years since war began
Nation marks anniversary of conflict, with 11,541 empty seats commemorating civilians killed during siege of Sarajevo.
Thousands of red chairs, one for each civilian killed in Sarajevo during a near-four-year siege of the capital, are standing empty along the city’s main avenue, as Bosnia and Herzegovina commemorates the 20th anniversary of the start of the country’s war.
People gathered along Marshal Tito Avenue to attend the remembrance ceremony on Friday, where a choir accompanied by a small classical orchestra performed an arrangement of 14 songs, most of them composed during the bloody siege.
“Why are you not here?” they sang to the 11,541 empty seats, victims of the siege by Bosnian Serb forces which became a symbol of the 1992-1995 conflict.
People placed white roses on some of the chairs, while on the smaller seats, symbolising the hundreds of children killed, sat teddy bears, toys and school books.
The ceremonies took place exactly two decades after Bosnian Serb snipers opened fire on thousands of protesters, inflicting the first casualties of the war and triggering a conflict that tore apart the newly independent former Yugoslav republic along ethnic lines.
“The amount of empty chairs shows the horror that we lived through,” Hazima Hadzovic, a resident of the city, told the AFP news agency.
“I just feel the need to come and honour the victims. I lost so many friends I cannot even remember all of their names now,” the 56-year-old said.
Longest city siege
Earlier, Sarajevo residents stopped what they were doing and observed an hour of silence from 2:00pm local time (1200 GMT) to mark the start of the conflict.
Al Jazeera’s Peter Sharp reports
Many in Sarajevo live daily with the memories of the longest city siege in modern history.
For 44 months, Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serbs shelled the town from the hills above and snipers shot pedestrians at random.
“I mostly recall the near continuous bombardment, the snipers, the dead,” Fuad Novalija, 64, a craftsman in Sarajevo’s old town, told AFP.
“The shells fell when we least expected them. People were killed as they queued for water or bread.”
About 100,000 people were killed during the war, and half the population of 4.4 million fled their homes.
While many of the city’s most symbolic buildings have been restored in the years since the end of the war, Sarajevo still bears the traces of shells and bullets.
Al Jazeera’s Peter Sharp, reporting from Sarajevo, said: “The city displays the scars of the long siege with pride.
“These are a reminder not just of the suffering here but also the resilience of it’s people and their determination to survive.”
The worst single atrocity during the war was at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995 when Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic over-ran a UN safe haven, killing about 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
Bosnian Serb political and military leaders like Radovan Karadzic and Mladic are now both facing trial for genocide before a UN war crimes court at The Hague.
Modern Bosnia is still divided along ethnic lines between a Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serbs’ Republika Srpska.
Bosnia’s two semi-autonomous statelets have their own political institutions, loosely connected through an almost powerless central government.