09 May 2012

The Siege That Wasn't


Weeks ago was 6th of April, the anniversary of the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia. The global press focused on 6th of April as a different Yugoslav anniversary, however. News outlets all over the world (eg the BBC, Al-Jazeera, the Associated Press), spent the day reporting it marked 20 years since the beginning of a four year siege of Sarajevo. But did it really? Without a doubt what has been dubbed The Siege of Sarajevo begun on 6th of April 1992, but was that event really a siege?

It is said The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege in modern history, having lasted until February 29th, 1996. This is interesting because the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina formally ended on December 14th, 1995, and was de facto over by November 21st, 1995. This means there is a claim Sarajevo was subject to a siege which actually outlasted the war by three months.

Yet how is it possible to maintain a siege in peacetime? Obviously that is impossible. That there is a siege means there is active warfare, and that there is active warfare means there is a war. In fact The Siege of Sarajevo could only last three months into peacetime, because it wasn't a siege in the first place.

The Bosnian Serb Blockade of Sarajevo

By common sense definition a siege is a military blockade of a fortress or a city maintained for the purpose of capturing said fortress or city. The city of Sarajevo was until February 29th, 1996 encircled by Bosnian Serb troops, but not every encirclement or blockade is a siege. A blockade that is not enforced for the purpose of capture, but is instead its own purpose is just a blockade.

The truth of The Siege of Sarajevo is that the "besieging" Bosnian Serb Army had neither the ability nor the intent to ever capture the city. The Bosnian Serb forces around Sarajevo were significantly outnumbered by the Bosnian Muslim forces inside the city. The advantages the Serbs held and which enabled them to keep Sarajevo bottled up was a one-sided superiority in artillery and control of the elevated terrain around the Sarajevo basin. Neither of these would have counted for much if they ever attempted to take the city block by block, however.

Additionally, Sarajevo simply was not much of a prize for the Serbs. Unlike the Bosnian Muslims who laid a claim to fully 100% of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosnian Serbs always contended themselves there would be a Bosnian Muslim state (of some size). From their side they were not waging the war to take hold of every last inch of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but to force the Bosnian Muslim leadership to acquiesce to the existence of a separate Bosnian Serb state (geographically generously defined).

Thus the Bosnian Serbs were interested in control of territory where Serbs predominated, territory that was strategically vital for them, and territory where they albeit presently a minority could jet come to dominate demographically in the future. Sarajevo fit none of these criteria. Thus the Bosnian Serbs were content to hold a number of Sarajevo's mainly Serb suburbs and to isolate the rest of the city from other territory held by the Sarajevo government.

The blockade performed a military purpose in keeping at least 35,000 Bosnian Muslim troops in the city apart from the main body of their army. It may have also been intended as a means of pressure against the leadership of the Bosnian Muslims to force it to accede to the Bosnian Serbs' terms. In fact the Bosnian Muslim leadership made the highly visible hardships the blockade imposed on the city's residents the cornerstone of its war strategy and came to see the "siege" as a net benefit to its cause.

The UN Blockade of Sarajevo

To speak of a Bosnian Serb blockade of Sarajevo alone, however, is to leave something out. June 1992 Bosnian Serbs ceded control of Sarajevo airport to a French-led UN force. The UN wanted the airport in order to fly in aid to blockaded Sarajevo. It was the case that Sarajevo airport was exactly where the Serb area of control around Sarajevo was the thinnest, however, and by ceding possession of it the Serbs no longer maintained a continuous ring around the city.

Before being given the airport the UN agreed not to use its presence to change the military-strategic realities on the ground, ie to not allow anyone to enter or exit the city across airport grounds. Thus all the while the UN maintained an airlift to Sarajevo it was simultaneously enforcing the land blockade of the city. Predictably the section of the ring around Sarajevo manned by UN troops proved particularly porous, but nonetheless after this we can speak of a jointly enforced Serb-UN blockade of Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Muslim Blockade of Sarajevo


The story does not end here. Aside from the outer, Serb blockade, there was also an inner, Bosnian Muslim blockade of Sarajevo. Wartime residents of Sarajevo trying to leave the city, or get in necessities of life were obstructed in doing so not only by the encircling Serb troops, but by the Bosnian Muslim authorities in the city as well.

Necessities of life trickled into wartime Sarajevo in a number of ways. Some were delivered in the UN airlift, and later on in land convoy operations. Additional resources were sold from their stock by entrepreneurial UN troops from Second and Third World countries. A small amount of necessities were smuggled nightly across the UN-occupied airport. The great majority of supplies needed for the survival of Sarajevo's residents, however, came first from the Serbs encircling the city and after late 1993 via a tunnel dug underneath the city's UN-occupied airport.

Only a very select group of Sarajevo's residents, however, had the the connections to access the tunnel underneath the airport, which was notionally reserved for official-military use only, or to realize transport of large shipment of supplies across the front lines. Those who did, did well from the "siege" being able to resell any supplies brought in at wondrously high prices and had an incentive to tighten the blockade from within and deny everyone else the kind of access to the front line or the tunnel they themselves enjoyed.

In a sense the residents of the blockaded city were being extorted by commanders of the encircling Serb forces who cut them off from the outside world, then sold them basics of life at exorbitant prices. The latter, however, had partners in crime in the Bosnian Muslims' own leaders who monopolized trading with the enemy, and later on the use of the celebrated tunnel underneath the airport. This is not to say opportunity for wondrous personal gain decisively determined the outlook of the Bosnian Muslims' leadership on the blockade, but it certainly colored their view of it.

Even more important than opportunity for personal enrichment, was the strategic equation. Political leadership of the Bosnian Muslims did not seek to win the war by the application of military means by the Bosnian Muslims acting alone. Instead it based its strategy for winning the war on securing for itself the favor and then the intervention of foreign powers. In line with this thinking it was crucial pictures of Bosnian Muslim suffering were being continuously broadcast into the world and generating the feeling of pity for their condition. Bosnian Muslim authorities privately welcomed a certain level of hardship being inflicted on the citizens of Sarajevo, who were under the spotlight of the global media, and took steps to ensure the peril they were in would not fall bellow such a level.

Routinely Serb artillery fire was provoked in the vicinity of civilian buildings for the benefit of foreign cameras. Almost certainly a number of false flag attacks were staged against Sarajevo's residents.* Authorities artificially curtailed the city's water supply. Residents of Sarajevo were not permitted to exit the city without official permission and faced prison terms if captured attempting to do so.

In late 1993 relief agencies set up a water treatment plant in Sarajevo. The plant had sufficient capacity to all but solve the critical problem of supply of drinkable water in the blockaded city (as it would eventually do). The Bosnian Muslim authorities first denied it permission to operate, then forced it to shut down when the plant begun operation anyway. After months of pressure from donors the plant finally received permission to begin operation, but only at a limited capacity. It was only in 1995 the plant was able to operate without restrictions.**  In between the media could continue to report Sarajevans remained partially dependent for water on unreliable sources some of which were exposed to sniper and artillery fire.

The ban on exiting the city was ostensibly put in place to prevent evasion of military service. In reality it was to maintain the interest of the Western media in the fate of the city, which could conceivably vane if Sarajevo half-emptied. The policy also kept thousands of those of Sarajevo's Serbs and Croats who did not flee or were not evicted at the onset of the war from leaving behind surroundings that were becoming increasingly hostile to them. The presence of non-token numbers of Serbs and Croats in Sarajevo provided the Islamist-run Bosnian Muslim government an argument for its claim of devotion to multi-cultural ideals, though in fact many of Sarajevo's non-Muslims felt themselves unsafe and trapped by the internal blockade and left as soon as they were again able to when the war ended.

Blockades Small and Large

The claim The Siege of Sarajevo was a siege is important because it establishes its singularity. As a siege The Siege of Sarajevo is "the longest siege in modern history". As a blockade it is one of many in its time and place and not record breaking in any of its aspects.

In the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina blockades were common and were put up by all of the warring sides. Bosnian Muslim forces had difficulty blockading Serb areas on the account of their inferior armaments, but that is not to say they were never successful. In the most well-known instance the Bosnian Muslim forces in 1992 enforced the land blockade of the village of Smoluća in north-eastern Bosnia. The blockade ended after 80 days when inhabitants of Smoluća were broken out and evacuated by a Bosnian Serb tank formation which had advanced from the main territory held by the Bosnian Serbs.

Against the less well-armed Bosnian Croats blockades of larger areas were possible. After successive 1993 offensives Bosnian Muslim forces succeeded in severing all land communications of the Bosnian Croat enclave of Lašva Valley and enforced a complete land blockade on the enclave of 70,000 people. (Other Bosnian Croat enclaves in Central Bosnia evaded a complete blockade only by the fact they neighbored Bosnian Serb territory.)

By far the largest blockade connected to the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, was not enforced by Bosnians, be they Serbs, Muslims or Croats, but by outsiders. The very same 1992 resolution of the UN Security Council that paved the way for a permanent airlift to blockaded Sarajevo also enacted economic sanctions on FR Yugoslavia.

In response to a blockade of a city the UN enforced a blockade on an entire nation (which was not even a belligerent in the war in Bosnia). Naturally, the Bosnian Serb blockade of Sarajevo was deemed a "siege", while the UN commercial blockade of Serbia went under the euphemism of "sanctions". Two measures that were exactly alike, except in their scale, passed for completely different things.

Simultaneously with the sanctions on Yugoslavia the UN also maintained sanctions on Iraq. The latter, largely because they came in the wake of massive bombing of the water supply, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people of Iraq.

Remarkably, the blockade of Sarajevo prompted international outcry largely by people who shrugged off, or supported the blockade of Iraq. Nor was this outcry directed at the relatively benign leadership of the Bosnian Serbs to call on them to reconsider their actions. It called on the great powers who were enforcing the far deadlier blockade of Iraq to do something about the Serbs.

It was not the siege of Sarajevo that was singular, but the response to it. Blockade of Iraq did not prompt mainstream outcry. Blockade of Sarajevo did. That opposition to blockade of Iraq which existed was framed in a conventional peace-advocacy message: powers behind it should take a look at themselves and reverse course. Opposition to the blockade of Sarajevo instead went with the idea the enforcers of the blockade on Iraq should take action against the Serbs. In other words, with the idea power should be exercised against them by the killers of hundreds of thousands of people.


* See John R. Schindler, Unholy Terror: Bosnia, al-Qa'ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (Zenith Press, 2007), p.170-173

** See Peter Andreas, Blue Helmets and Black Markets: The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo (London: Cornell University Press, 2008),  p.100-103

2 comments:

  1. Interesting. I am also not sure whether there was really a siege of East Mostar, as has often been claimed. And from what I have seen conditions were pretty bad in Brcko although I'm not sure if this has been examined in detail anywhere?

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  2. Well-written, Hero. And a good point to boot. My count of the war's duration was 1326 days, from the first skirmish on April 5, to the initial signing of the Dayton Accords in Ohio, in November 1995. Extending the war's duration to February 1996 is clearly gilding the lily.

    I'd like to point out an important aspect of the map you referenced on top: it's a CIA map of the 1995 "summer breakout" offensive by the Bosnian (Muslim) Army. Even a casual glance can see that the operation made little military sense (a three-pronged attack in three different directions, only one which was even remotely logical), but more to the point, that one of the attacks was launched from a UN-patrolled DMZ, ceded by the Serbs in 1993 (when they'd actually re-sealed the ring in a counter-attack through Trnovo, prompting hysterical calls for intervention). The tunnel also directly violated both the spirit and the letter of the airport agreement, but the UN always pretended not to notice its existence.

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