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Sarajevo remembers grisly war

By Barbara Demick

Los Angeles Times

Published: Friday, April 6 2012 10:55 p.m. MDT

Red chairs along Marshal Tito Street in Sarajevo acknowledge those killed in war 20 years ago.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (MCT) — As far as the eye could see up and down the main street were rows of red plastic chairs lined up for a memorial concert, but nobody was allowed to sit down. The chairs were set out to mark the 11,541 Sarajevans killed during the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare.

People strolled by with their children, whispering explanations about what had happened. They took photographs and laid flowers. By the end of the day, flowers adorned most of the chairs. On the smallest chairs, set out for the 1,600 children who were among the victims, were teddy bears, toy cars and balloons.

On large screens erected along the street, the names of the victims rolled in a continuous loop, white print on black.

The event Friday was the largest commemoration ceremony ever held in Sarajevo for the three-year-long war that began April 6, 1992.

"It is the catharsis that people really needed," said Haris Pasovic, the theater director who designed the memorial, picking the color red for the chairs to resemble "a river of blood."

Twenty years ago, Bosnia-Herzegovina was supposed to be celebrating its independence, one of the new nations cropping up after collapse of the communist bloc. Bosnians had voted overwhelmingly the month before in a referendum to secede from the disintegrating Yugoslavia, as had Croatia and Slovenia the year before. The hope was that by creating, as the referendum called it, "a state of equal citizens ... of Muslims, Serbs and Croats," Bosnia could avoid bloodshed.

But some of the Serbs objected and, although they were a minority, they had the weaponry of the Yugoslav National Army at their disposal.

For three years, they occupied the mountains surrounding Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. They cut off water, food and electricity while subjecting the city to relentless bombardment. As the world watched in horror, snipers picked off civilians, children and old people alike.

The red chairs were set out along Marshal Tito Street, named for Yugoslavia's late president who is still a popular figure here. Along the route, most of the older buildings are still pocked with shrapnel and bullet holes. Paw-print-shaped scars in the pavement (now filled with red resin as a memorial) show where mortar shells landed in the middle of crowds.

"It is important for us that they are having these ceremonies," said 18-year-old Emina Rizvic, whose high school class arrived by bus from Zenica for commemorative ceremonies Friday. "Most of us were born in 1993. We were all war babies, but we don't remember. This is part of the history we need to learn."

After a massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men in Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, NATO conducted large-scale airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions.

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