Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Siege of Sarajevo

This is the sixth part in a series about Bosnia-Herzegovina thirty years after its civil wars.


The Eugene Schulman Room at the National Library in Sarajevo. Elsewhere in the library are the Enlightenment books of the Professor Joseph Levine Room. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

For my week in Sarajevo, I booked an Airbnb across from the central market (that which was shelled during the civil war) in what feels like the “Austrian” part of the city. Just down the main pedestrian street was the old Turkish Quarter. My apartment had a small balcony, a desk, and an adequate kitchen, so the first thing I did was walk to a nearby supermarket and stock up on essentials.

Sarajevo Roses

Even on a short walk in the old town (it’s more residential than business), I passed many so-called Sarajevo roses, which are mortar scars on the sidewalk, now painted red. Overall, it is estimated that the siege of Sarajevo lasted almost four years and cost the lives of 11,541 residents, of whom 1,601 were children.

Although estimates for all Yugoslavia war casualties vary, it is believed that between 110,000 and 140,000 people died in the civil wars, although it is impossible to count how many people died from a lack of food or proper medical care.

For example, the aunt and uncle of a distant cousin of mine died during the war in Sarajevo, but the reasons for their deaths vary between war shock, the winter cold, and old age.

A New Home for the Enlightenment

Later that same afternoon I visited what is officially called the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, located on the grounds of the university, next door to the rebuilt American Embassy (which was done in grey stone behind an imposing fence and from the street looks like a German bunker).

I had not been to the library since before the pandemic, and I had never seen the books that were a gift to the library from the family of Professor Joseph Levine at Syracuse University, who died in 2005.

During his lifetime Professor Levine collected some 30,000 books on the general subject of the European Enlightenment, and it was this collection that was shipped to Sarajevo during the low moments of the Covid lockdowns.

Shipping the books to Sarajevo took more than a year to arrange, as moving company quotes, during the pandemic, came and went, especially as the so-called supply chain evaporated.

In the end, after much haggling, the container was parked behind the National Library, and the staff carried the books inside. Several months later the books were placed on shelves in what has since been named the Levine Room, where on one of the shelves I came across biographies of Goethe, James Joyce, Beethoven, and Jane Austen.

I cannot say that the presence of such volumes will prevent Bosnia-Herzegovina from again sliding into civil war, but I like the idea that scholars from all over world might someday come to Sarajevo to browse through an important collection on the Enlightenment—given that in the 1990s the only reason people came to Sarajevo was to write about the war.

Back to the Eugene Schulman Reading Room

Most days I was in Sarajevo I would stop by the National Library and spend time in the Eugene Schulman Room, where the books of my friend Gene are arranged on tall shelves. Before Gene died in 2020, he shipped his entire library—some 6,000 books—to Sarajevo.

Several months later, on the occasion of Gene’s 90th birthday, the library held a dedication ceremony for the donation of his books. Gene felt his health was too precarious to travel, so a group of his friends went in his stead, and at the ceremony we read aloud from the speech that Gene wrote for the occasion:

Besides The History of Reading, one of my favorite [Alberto] Manguel stories is called “The Library at Night.” It describes the creation of his own private library, of some twenty thousand volumes, housed in a country home he purchased in the south of France. The story tells how he would spend his nights in that library, communing with his books. In a lesser way, I have experienced the same musings in my own library.

Unfortunately, when Manguel accepted the appointment as director of the Argentina National Library, which required moving to Buenos Aires, he realized he would have to give up his home in the south of France and close up his library. He did just that, and, once the job was completed, he wrote an essay about the experience called “Packing My Library.” In it, he told about all of his friends who helped him and how they found places to store the books. It is a very moving essay, reminiscent of my own experience today.

The second essay book-ending these remarks is much older, written by the great German Jewish philosopher and bibliophile, Walter Benjamin. The title of his essay is “Unpacking My Library.” In it he tells us what it is like to find our old companions again after they have been stored away, placing them where they belong on the shelves among their neighbors and companions.

The theme in both of these essays is the meaning books have for us, and how life-affirming they are.

So, with these thoughts and friends in mind, after having packed up my own modest library in Geneva, Switzerland, I unpack it again here in Sarajevo in this fine institution as it rises from its own ashes like the fabled Phoenix.

May my meager gift help contribute to the replacement of the two million volumes lost in the holocaust that was the Bosnian war. And may its contents help teach us to hate and avoid war, heal our planet, and help us to find meaning in life. May it be a seed in the renaissance of a new enlightenment.

It was the gift of the Schulman books that brought forth other donations, including the Levine collection and other book shipments that, as I write, are heading to Bosnia (where the problem is that most local libraries have little room and lack funding for shelving).

Being in the Schulman room brought Gene alive to me, if only through his books on the shelves. I had gotten to know his collection well when it was located in his home office in Geneva (and I would visit Gene to coach him through his computer struggles), but in those days Gene’s books were piled on the floor and stacked in corners.

Now they are carefully arranged on the shelves under the watchful eye of their curator, Ms. Selma Bajraktarević, who cataloged and shelved all 6,000 books. In so doing she was able to share the pleasure that Gene described, when re-shelving books, of finding “our old companions.”

The Sieges of Sarajevo

I was on my own in the mornings, and I used the free time to explore the neighborhoods on either side of the Miljacka River, which in the war years was yet another urban trench between the besieging Serbs and the surrounded Muslims.

Put simply—and the battle for Sarajevo was never that—the Serbs occupied the high ground around the city while the Muslims (but Serbs too) were crammed into the river valley that runs east-west across Sarajevo. Sniper fire and artillery shells descended from the high grounds, which turned downtown Sarajevo into a bull ring with live ammunition.

Just crossing a street or an exposed intersection could prove fatal, as it did for many residents. But Sarajevans had to go to work or search for food, and that put many in harm’s way. More than 10,000 local citizens died during the siege, a tactic that the Serbs devised (although it failed) to coerce the Muslim residents to surrender and for Bosnian Serbs to remain at the center of an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One of the defenders of Sarajevo during the siege was the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who wrote:

Sarajevo is a mouse trap, Sarajevo is a ghetto. Killers in the shadows. Killers without faces. Terror. Psychosis. An entire city under the fire of a hand, perhaps hundreds of killers, who, rumor has it, collect a hundred German marks for every Sarajevan hit, like a cardboard target….They besiege the city, they hold it hostage.

The Real War Will Not Get On the Talk Shows

Not everyone, however, concurred with the accepted wisdom that the Serbs (in their quest for what was called a Greater Serbia) caused the outbreak of the fighting or that they alone were responsible for the barbarism of the siege warfare.

In Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, Diana Johnstone (Gene Schulman gave me the book) writes:

The “story” could only be the martyrdom of unarmed Muslims and of Sarajevo under siege. The fact that the Muslim party was maintaining the “siege of Sarajevo” (occasionally shelling the Sarajevo airport, for instance, to block relief flights) in order to win foreign support, was too cynical a reality to serve up to Western consumers of mediated wars. It was precisely in 1994, when the Bosnian Serbs were on the defensive and more disposed than the Muslims to make peace, that the portrayal of the Muslims as helpless victims abandoned by a heartless world to Serbian “genocide” reached a peak. This was the year when a group of French intellectuals, propelled by fashionable opinion writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, launched a “Sarajevo list” for the European Parliament elections, with the slogan “Europe lives or dies in Sarajevo”.

Thirty years later, I cannot judge which interpretation of the siege captures the reality, but I can say that, even now, when you walk with anyone in Sarajevo, their narratives are punctuated with war geography—which apartment blocks held snipers during the siege, where their friends were killed, or where it was possible to collect water and stay safe. It’s an urban landscape as a war memorial, and most Sarajevans struggle to believe the shelling and sniper fire are over.

The Cleansed City Today

Even a short visit in Sarajevo makes it clear that the city that emerged from the war is anything but multicultural.

Sarajevo is now largely devoid of Serbs and Croats, although before the war Muslims made up only half of the local population; the rest were either Serbs, Yugoslavs, or Croats—with Serbs and Croats amounting to 40 percent of the population. In more recent census reports, Serbs amounted to less than 4 percent of the population, and Croats were about 5 percent.

The irony of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s is that they became a war against multiculturalism, especially the hybrid state of former Yugoslavia. Johnstone writes:

In their effort to win separate states of their own, Croats, Albanians, and Bosnian Muslims shared a common enemy. That common enemy was multinational Yugoslavia. Politically, the formula for winning support from American politicians was to identify Yugoslavia with the Serbs and the Serbs with “communism”….

The case of Yugoslavia has already illustrated the functioning of this ideology, with its inherent bias in favor of “nation-splitting” versus “nation-building” peoples…. the Serbs were necessarily the villains in Yugoslavia, because they were the relative majority and preferred a multinational nation-state to ethnic separatism.

Gerrymandering Division

In my mind what also doomed Titoist Yugoslavia was the spiraling debt of the central government that, come the end of the Cold War, lost its subsidies from both the East (the Soviet Union) and West (the United States and the EU). Previously, Yugoslavia was a swing vote in the Cold War, and that kept it solvent.

In such a game of financial musical chairs, republics such as Slovenia and Croatia didn’t want to be left holding the bag of Belgrade’s federal debts when the music stopped, and they decided they would be better off independent than part of a larger confederation that had a weak economy, runaway foreign debt, and ruinous inflation. (Nor in 1991 did Yugoslavia have an offer on the table to join the European Union.)

Then the problem was that while Slovenia mostly was made up of Slovenes, the other major republics—Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially—had large Serbian minorities that did not want to live, as a minority, in a country other than Yugoslavia.

What finally pushed Yugoslavia over the geopolitical edge was the German government’s insistence in 1992 on recognizing the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina without considering that such precipitous acts would doom all the countries of former Yugoslavia to civil wars—as minorities fought to escape.

Yugoslavia paid a bill that Germany ran up in the era of its expanded Eastern European influence after the absorption of the German Democratic Republic. I am not saying that they did it for Lebensraum, but the sphere-of-influence echoes can be heard.

Serbs no more wanted to live as minorities in Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina than did Kosovars want to live in Serbia, and while the fighting ended in the 1990s the fractures remain.

If you want a war in Europe, draw state borders around any nationality, and see who gets included and see who is left out in the newly formed nation-state. For example, look at Ukraine and Russia today, where many of many of the issues from Yugoslavia’s demise are getting a reprise.

Next installment: Saving Sarajevo’s books.

Earlier pieces in this series can be read here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.