The Siege Starts Without Warning

Sarajevo, 1993. Sarajevo was the last great city at the western boundary of the Ottoman Empire, while Aleppo was the greatest city on its eastern side. Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos
Sarajevo, 1993. Sarajevo was the last great city at the western boundary of the Ottoman Empire, while Aleppo was the greatest city on its eastern side. Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos

I woke one morning 24 years ago to find a war all around me. The night before I had been at a concert for the Partybreakers, a punk band from Belgrade. I’d had too much beer and I had a headache. Bursts of gunfire were audible, along with the explosions of the mortar shells that would rain down on Sarajevo for the next three and a half years.

I don’t know what it was like when the war first came to Aleppo, Syria. Only the people still living there do — thousands of men, women and children who have now been under siege for years. From the perspective of an ordinary citizen, let’s say a 25 year old with literary and musical interests, the siege starts without warning and comes out of nowhere.

Yes, the papers and the TV have been reporting for months about how the situation in the country is growing more complicated, how conflict is brewing among political opponents, and how in the provinces there has already been fighting. But as long as a city continues to live its normal, placid life, which is the sort of life it lives up until the very last instant and the final quiet evening, war seems impossible. You look at your dog and your books, the spider in the corner of your room spinning a web that tomorrow will catch its first little fly, and you can’t imagine that the next morning all this, including the dog and the spider, will be caught up in war.

At the beginning of Bosnia’s war, Sarajevo had some 400,000 inhabitants. Aleppo, before its war, was five times larger. Sarajevo was founded about five centuries ago. Aleppo is one of the oldest cities on earth, in the part of the world that brings together Europe and the East, where the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — were born and grew up. It was there at the emergence of our civilization. Not so long ago, just 150 years back, the two cities were under the same monarch. Sarajevo was the last great city at the western boundary of the Ottoman Empire, while Aleppo was the greatest city on its eastern side.

But none of that is important to an ordinary citizen who is just trying to get through another day of a siege. When the war began, that person probably believed that reason would never allow the bombing and destruction of such a place as Aleppo. We in Sarajevo had the same illusion.

When the siege began, Sarajevo was filled with American and Western European journalists. And this would be the case until the end of the war. Every step we took was documented, photographed and filmed for display on televisions around the world. For the first 16 months of the war, I worked as part of the editorial team for a local newsmagazine. To get to work I had to take a bridge that crossed the river where snipers shot from one of the neighboring hills. The daily sprint across that bridge was part of my life’s routine. Sometimes, someone would die there, but a person can grow accustomed to living even with this kind of realization, though obviously only when he is not the one who’s been hit.

Snipers were not the only ones aiming at the bridge. From cover, with a good view, lurked the foreign photojournalists and TV cameramen, in order to be there in case people were shot. Try to imagine how miserably a person might feel trying to run across the bridge before their eyes.

In Aleppo there aren’t so many Western journalists, photographers or TV crews recording, documenting or broadcasting the suffering of the city’s inhabitants. In Sarajevo, the foreign journalists were protected. Not one of the warring factions dared kill them. In the wars that have followed, one of the main goals of the warring parties, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Eastern Ukraine and back to Syria, has been the elimination of foreign journalists. If you kill one, others will not come. Or you simply don’t allow that first crew to film and photograph and take notes.

The Bosnian Serbs lost the war, and the siege was lifted from Sarajevo primarily because film and photographs showed what was happening to the inhabitants of the city. After three and a half years, the deadly reality show that had been broadcast to all the eyes in the free and protected world became unbearable. Then, in Dayton, an accord was signed. The bloody spectacle was over.

In Aleppo there is no spectacle. There they are suffering and dying far from the cameras of photographers and television crews. As I look at the pictures of a demolished building, the amateur videos, the rare reports from inside Aleppo, I think how lucky I was to have that CNN cameraman following me with his eyes as I ran across that bridge. It was thanks to the journalists’ eyes that the snipers were not able to keep shooting at me long enough to hit me. And that Sarajevo was not in the end demolished completely.

Early in the siege, the citizen lives in hope, believing in cease-fire agreements. Then all his hopes are placed in the bravery and military genius of the city’s defenders, who shall break through the ring around the city. When he understands that nothing will come of the cease-fires, and that the city’s defensive forces are ineffectual, then legends rise up about the appearance of some great foreign power that will bypass the logic of the siege and bring justice.

In the summer of 1992, three or four months after the beginning of the siege, a rumor was running through Sarajevo, one that was believed sincerely even by the city’s politicians, that the American Sixth Fleet was just then sailing for the Adriatic Sea to begin an operation to break the siege. Sarajevo’s inhabitants believed that the president of the United States was lying awake in bed at night, thinking of our city.

Is this what the citizens of Aleppo are thinking today? Perhaps not so much. At the beginning of the 1990s, the United States was thought of in the eastern parts of Europe as an empire of freedom and justice. Today, people experience America differently. But is it really possible that in Washington, New York and Los Angeles, everything can run according to the same old ordinary, lighthearted routine while Aleppo dies? Somehow, I feel certain that some silent and unseen citizens of that city are asking themselves precisely this question.

Hope and faith in America are linked to a picture of an American way of life as it once existed, and as it still exists in Bosnia, in connection with certain trite, everyday images, emblems and icons. For instance, is it really possible that America could allow people to perish who were just yesterday drinking Coca-Cola? Does this question seem banal and senseless to you? Maybe so. Dying people do not usually ask questions that are especially wise. Or, maybe, the citizens of Aleppo no longer even see America as the land of freedom. If that is so, then America is dying alongside them, because it cannot help.

Miljenko Jergovic is the author of Sarajevo Marlboro, a collection of short stories. This essay was translated by Russell Scott Valentino from the Serbo-Croatian.

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