“At the beginning, it was just unreal. We didn’t believe what was happening and we thought it was just going to stop. After a few months, we realised that it was not going to stop and the only idea was to get out.”
The Siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege in modern history. From April 1992 to February 1996, Serb forces established a total blockade of the Bosnian capital. For almost four years, people in the city endured constant shelling and bombing and lived without power, gas and water, surviving only on food aid supplied by the United Nations. More than 10,000 were killed during the siege. Mirza Catibusic, who is from Sarajevo, was 24 years old when the siege began. Mirza lived through the siege for two years before he and a few others were airlifted and eventually brought to Ireland. He remembers when the siege started:
“One thing that struck me after it began was that there were no birds left – birds were gone. Nobody went out for ‘a walk’. Anyone who would go out without very good reason was probably a lunatic, or something. It was crazy to go out just to expose yourself to unnecessary danger.”
The siege was triggered by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia’s declaration of independence. Bosnian Serbs opposed this and a civil war broke between the country’s three main ethnic groups – the Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Serbs, under the leadership of Radovan Karadžić, lay siege to Sarajevo. It wasn’t possible to leave the city and Mirza says that with this realisation, time stopped for him and for the quarter of a million people who were confined to Sarajevo:
“After six months, you realised this was the life, there was no way out, and every day was the same. And we realised there was nobody coming to help us - absolutely nobody. And, I suppose, the only thing that became important was to survive. And then, the time came and we said ‘what’s the point of all of this’. We became like dead people.”
Books were burned and trees were cut down to supply fuel for fires. Mirza says that nobody went out, as the city was shelled and bombed, and as snipers took aim from the surrounding mountains. But he says the time came when people became numb to the daily onslaught:
“We said you can destroy us physically, but you cannot destroy our spirit, and we pretended to live. We would get dressed up and put a tie on – I mean, there was no point in doing that, but that was part of trying to live… a normal life.”
Mirza lived in an apartment with his parents; they slept in their living room by the warmth of the fire. Mirza had three brothers who joined the Bosnian Army in resistance to the blockade of the city by Serbian forces. Mirza is a pharmacy graduate and he worked in a hospital lab with his microbiologist father, “Every morning when I was going to work I would say goodbye to my mother because there was a high possibility that I would not be coming back home. You know, the number of times snipers would shoot or grenades would fall nearby.”
Approximately 350 grenades fell on the city every day during the siege. In August of 1993, Mirza was seriously wounded while working in the hospital lab, “Equipment that I worked with in the hospital was highly sensitive and what probably happened is that a grenade fell; there was a big shake of the entire building and due to different pressures in the systems everything exploded. My face was blown up and I lost sight in my right eye. Then the struggle became that I needed to get out (of the city), and that was the second part of my life during the war… trying to get out.”
Six months after his injury, in February of 1994, 68 people were killed when a mortar bomb exploded in Sarajevo’s main market square. The international community intervened, and Mirza says the United States sent air transporters to airlift many people who had been seriously injured during the siege. Mirza was one of those chosen:
“It was like a dream. My first instinct was ‘Yes, I’m getting out. Yes, I’m getting out!’, and I said goodbye to my mother, father and three brothers. I suppose we were all a little bit selfish during the war. It’s very difficult to say how the instinct of survival kicks in. I got to the air transporter and when it was leaving, I started to get mixed feelings about whether I should leave, but it was too late… there was no way back.
Mirza and a number of others who had been wounded were first brought to a US military base in Germany, but Mirza’s eye had to be treated. Many countries took medical refugees at the time, including Ireland.
He arrived in Ireland at the end of February 1994. A year later, Mirza would have surgery on his eye. He was housed at a centre with other Bosnians. In January 1995, he received a phone call that shook Mirza to his core; a phone call that changed his life:
“I was called to come down to an office. To ring Sarajevo was impossible and I was surprised as to why I was being called and told to sit down. And there were all of these people around me and I still didn’t cop on. And when I heard my brother’s voice on the phone, then I knew something was wrong....”
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