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Twenty years on from its siege, Sarajevo still feels the emptiness


Bosnians walked silently and sobbed on Sarajevo's main street yesterday, leaving flowers and gifts on 11,541 red chairs arranged in seemingly endless rows – the number representing the men, women and children killed in a siege that ended up being the longest in modern history.

Marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war, exhibitions, concerts and performances were held, but the impact of the empty chairs reduced many to tears. "It's as if the whole tragedy materialised, became visible," said Asja Rasavac, who covered her face with an umbrella, embarrassed at not being able to control her tears. "One cannot even describe the feeling. It's not hatred. It's not anger. It's just endless sadness."

Hundreds of the chairs were small, representing slain children. On some, passers-by left teddy bears, little plastic cars, other toys or candy. "The amount of the chairs really hit me, especially the little ones," said Ana Macanovic, who placed white roses on seven seats – each for a member of her family killed by mortar shells during the siege.

Of the tens of thousands of passers-by, hardly anyone spoke. Many just walked and sobbed, overwhelmed by the length of the red river of empty chairs. "This city needs to stop for a moment and pay tribute to its killed citizens," said Haris Pasovic, the organiser of the "Sarajevo Red Line".

The Serbian siege of Sarajevo went on for 46 months – 11,825 days – longer than the siege of Leningrad, now St Petersburg, during the Second World War. Its 380,000 people were left without food, electricity, water or heating, hiding from the 330 shells a day that smashed into the city.

On the fateful day of 6 April 1992, around 40,000 people from all over the country – Bosnian Muslims, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats – poured into a square further down the street to demand peace from their quarrelling nationalist politicians. The European Community had recognised the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia as an independent state after most of its people voted for independence. But the vote went down along ethnic lines, with Bosnian Muslims and Croats voting for independence, and Bosnian Serbs preferring to stay with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.

The ethnic unity being displayed on the Sarajevo square irritated Serb nationalists, who then shot into the crowd from a nearby hotel, killing five people and igniting the 1992-1995 war. The Serb nationalists, helped by neighbouring Serbia, laid siege to Sarajevo and within a few months occupied 70 per cent of Bosnia, expelling all non-Serbs from territory they controlled.