It’s a strange thing how some faces become etched in memory, serving as a visual representation of events. For me, the face of protests in Sarajevo 1992 belongs to a man for whom the intensity of his emotions became more than he could bear. At 16 I hardly understood these emotions. In his face I saw pain, sadness, anger and devastation. While his yelling and tearing off clothes scared me, I also felt sorry for him.
Passing the military barracks JNA soldiers (Yugoslavian Army) were in windows and on the roof. I imagined how magnificent this moment was and how great it would be if they joined us in solidarity. I still believed that the shootings of protesters a few nights prior were accidental. I was young and naïve enough to believe the official military statements were true.
We marched towards the Parliament building where Sarajevans from the other side of the city were to join us in demanding peace and governmental accountability. Recent events had left Bosnia and Herzegovina in complete anarchy after the three major political parties broke apart in, what seemed to be, a permanent state of animosity.
Arriving at Parliament there were masses of people descending onto a small square in front of the long, Soviet-style building. Kids climbed trees surrounding the building to witness unfolding history. Protesters overtook walls, and the windows of nearby apartment buildings filled with Sarajevans eager to break down militia-run ad hoc barricades and restore their city. I was enveloped with excitement and singing. “We want peace!” some chanted; “We demand salaries and pensions!” others cried; “We want pot!” some youths chuckled.
I felt a myriad of emotions with an intensity I never felt before. Pride, excitement, love and resistance filled me, bringing tears to my eyes. I could see that my mom, sister and my friends were also unified in these feelings, and I realized this was the exact moment of my liberation. I became an integral part of something bigger than I could comprehend.
There was a sudden surge of energy as everyone shouted in unison, “Here they come, here they come.” Several trucks arrived with men in blue uniforms, white helmets and blackened faces, carrying signs reading “Brotherhood and Unity.”
Through tears mom said things would be okay now that the miners had arrived. She said “Miners don’t have anything to lose and when they join the fight it is all or nothing.” I felt relief at their arrival. We were not alone now.
Recollecting the exact moment when we came under a sniper fire has been a difficult task. I only remember hearing an, until then, unfamiliar sound. It was the hissing of bullets passing by my head, gentle almost as the sound of a bee’s wing brushing against the hair…with heat! Someone screamed “They are shooting from the Holiday Inn!”
There was panic everywhere. Mom screamed trying to keep us from being separated by stampeding frightened and confused people. People crouched behind a wall and we joined them there. Mom covered us with her body to shield us from bullets, waiting for a moment when we could escape. We learned that right after we left the military opened fire from the barracks, killing among others, a fifteen year old. During a brief lull we sprinted up the street, through people fleeing for cover.
Events later that day became a part of our family lore. We had to get to our car which was parked by the military barracks. Mom’s Peugot Diana, with its bad muffler, scared neighborhood militiamen who thought a tank was approaching. Jets roared overhead, shattering windows and giving us a preview of what was yet to come. Amid the sound of explosions and gunfire, our friend Lejla jumped up and demanded another friend, Zoran, sleep with her at that moment so that she wouldn’t die a virgin!
Watching the government crackdown on Iranian protesters reminds me of those first days of the war. I am reminded of the contempt that all governments have for the people. It is only a people who do not relinquish their power, and who constantly demand accountability and subservience by public officials that keeps them from abusing that power.