Siege of Sarajevo: War in the museum

Triggered by the breakup of Yugoslavia, the civil war that broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992 claimed 100 000, mostly civilian, lives. One of its key moments was the Siege of Sarajevo which lasted 1422 days – much longer than the Battle of Stalingrad during WW2. Two and a half decades since the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War, the devastation is a bad memory. With all the white tombstones that fill Sarajevo’s parks, is there still a need to relive this tragedy?

Every history museum has been confronted with the topic of war and violence. In Sarajevo where such history is so recent and where the warring factions – the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Serbs and Croats – continue to live side by side, representations of violence for mass consumption come with ethical limits and pertinent questions. How to present the Bosnian War without trivialising violence? And how can a history museum promote learning without emotionally manipulating?

The History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo answers these questions as best as one can. It occupies a war-damaged 1960s building and, with its ‘Sarajevo under Siege’ display, it addresses itself not to foreign visitors but the Sarajevans themselves. It charts everyday struggles during the siege with the help of newspaper cuttings, personal effects, makeshift stoves and canned food aid. It’s all as low-cost and shabby as life in the war-time Sarajevo would have been.

Among the museum’s many heartbreaking items one object stands out. Folded under a glass case lies a tiny blue-and-white handknit sweater that belonged to a seven-year-old boy shot in a Sarajevo street by sniper fire on 18 November 1994. Donated to the museum by Nermin Divović’s family, the sweater also appears in two photographs – one with Nermin wearing it while playing football in his neighbourhood and the other with Nermin wearing it and lying dead in a pool of blood.

No less emotional experience is to be found in the Tunnel of Hope inside Sarajevo’s suburbia. Dug out by hand underneath an airport runway from the besieged Dobrinja to the unoccupied Butmir, the 800-metre tunnel once offered a lifeline. Food and refugees would pass through the narrow tube, a section of which is now open to visitors. A small exhibition draws a clever parallel between Sarajevo – the Winter Olympic City of 1984 and Sarajevo – the Besieged City between 1992 and 1995.