Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Cellist of Sarajevo

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
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  • First Published:
    May 2008, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2009, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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The Siege of Sarajevo

continued from main section ....  Tito's death in 1980, as well as the collapse of Communism a decade later, resulted in a power vacuum, destabilizing the careful balance Tito had created between the Balkan republics. Ethnic nationalism, brutally repressed by the prior regime, experienced a resurgence. Slobodan Milosevic, leader of the Communist Party in Serbia, took advantage of the instability, eventually taking control of the region and of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA).

Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, concerned about Milosevic's growing power, began to move toward independence from "Greater Serbia". Despite resistance from the JNA, Slovenia, primarily comprised of ethnic Serbs, achieved independence in 1989; and Croatia, with only a small non-Serb minority, followed in 1991. Bloodshed was relatively minimal for these two countries, due to the homogenous nature of the local populations, resulting in little internal dissent.

Bosnia, on the other hand, was evenly split between three ethnic groups – Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and Croats (Catholics). Divided along ethnic lines, they maintained a strained coalition government. The Serbs wanted to remain part of Greater Serbia, while the Bosniaks and Croats wanted complete independence. The government called for a referendum on February 29, 1992, which the Serbs boycotted. The Bosniaks and Croats voted almost unanimously for independence. The Serb minority, concerned about being under Muslim rule, armed themselves and started fighting Bosnian Muslims. Most towns fell quickly, with the exception of Sarajevo. On April 6, 1992, Serb militants opened fire on thousands of peace demonstrators in Sarajevo, officially beginning the Siege of Sarajevo - which would last for almost four years.

Sarajevo, approximately eight miles long and two miles wide, stretches along both sides of the Miljacka River. It is surrounded on all sides by hills, and the river is non-navigable. The Serbian militants, backed by the JNA, took control of the heights. All roads in and out of the city were blockaded and the airport was shut down. The only access in and out of the city was through an underground tunnel, used by the military, journalists and black-marketeers, which was not available to the blockaded citizens, who were prevented from leaving the city by their own troops because the potential mass exodus could have depleted the city to the point where the Serbs would have won control. The nearly 400,000 residents were completely shut off from food, electricity, medical supplies, fuel, and ammunition.

The Serbs shelled Sarajevo constantly. An average of 329 shell impacts occurred every day, with a high of 3,777 on July 22, 1993. By September 1993, almost all buildings had incurred some damage. Snipers in the hills and the outlaying Sarajevo suburbs targeted men, women and children as they attempted to cross streets in search of food or water. More than 12,000 people were killed during the nearly four-year siege (the stadium constructed for the 1984 Winter Olympics was used as a cemetery). Approximately 50,000 people were wounded, 85% of whom were civilians. The survivors came close to complete starvation.

During the Markale Marketplace Massacre on February 5, 1994, 68 civilians were killed and 200 wounded by mortar shells, prompting the UN to belatedly issue an ultimatum to Serb forces to cease hostilities. The Serbs complied somewhat, and the shelling decreased dramatically. The UN attempted to broker a truce which was to take effect on May 1, 1995 but it broke down; another cease-fire was agreed on October 11, 1995. However, Sarajevo remained under siege until February 29, 1996.

Interesting Links about the war in Bosnia and the Siege of Sarajevo:

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the April 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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