Twenty years on: Sarajevo's legacy

People shelter from Serb sniper in Sarajevo, 1992

Jeremy Bowen reported for the BBC during the Bosnian war and, on the 20th anniversary of the start of the conflict, returns to Sarajevo to reflect on his experiences.

The first time I landed at Sarajevo airport I was taking over as correspondent from my BBC colleague Martin Bell.

It was a hot morning in the early summer of 1992, the war was in its first few months and I had been told Martin would give me a good briefing.

I walked down the tail ramp of the Saudi Arabian airforce transport plane that had brought a cargo of medical supplies and a few reporters into the besieged city, dodging the crew who were frantically throwing boxes of dressings and IV fluid out on to the tarmac.

The engines were still running - they kept them going because the pilot planned only to stay as long as it took to unload.

Martin was short and to the point.

"You'll enjoy it - if you live," he told me, not breaking step as he strode up the ramp into the belly of the plane.

And I suppose he was right.

In the next three years there were some terrible moments, but the war opened up its bitter heart and drew me right in.

I hated the killing, and the way the people who were not killed suffered. But I enjoyed living on the edge, in a place with no rules.

I never much liked leaving Sarajevo, or Mostar, even to decompress on the pearly and deserted Venetian beauty of the Croatian coast, and I would count the days until I could go back.

Darkest corners

I did not die, though many, many people did.

I enjoyed surviving the day, being young and indestructible.

The best part was trying to shine a light into some of the world's darkest corners, to make a record of the terrible things that people were doing to each other. It gave my life a serious purpose.

At night the sound of shelling and gunfire, if it was not too close, would lull me to sleep.

Image caption Sarajevo was besieged for almost four years from April 1992

I did not exactly need the danger, but I was happy to be the one who would be telling the world about the bad things that were going to happen tomorrow.

It was my war, in my continent, at a time when I was growing up as a foreign correspondent.

It made me angry that some people in Britain easily ignored the slaughter that was happening in our backyard.

Until almost the very end the international response to the war was a deadly failure, underscored by thousands of lines of graves.

In 1992 the world was learning to live outside the constraints of the Cold War.

Local conflicts in sensitive parts of the world no longer could escalate into a hot war between the superpowers, which was a huge relief to all of us who grew up with the insane prospect of mutually assured destruction.

But it also meant there was no need for a superpower hotline when local conflicts went critical, so the world's most powerful countries could afford to stay spectating when war became genocide in the Balkans and then in Rwanda in 1994.


The shame and the impotence of those years left a mark.

One is a strengthened aspiration that it is wrong - and even politically costly - for a powerful state with a belief in the rights of humankind to watch killing when it could be stopped.

The desire to avoid another Bosnia, or Rwanda was a powerful motivator in London and Paris when the decision was being made to intervene in Libya last year, and is still one reason why Britain and others want to do something - within the severe constraints of what they believe is possible - to stop the killing in Syria.

Of course intervention is deeply controversial, contaminated by the catastrophic consequences of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and seen as a cynical and hypocritical return to imperialism by many people around the world.

But getting involved with soft power, or economic sanctions, or old fashioned diplomacy, at the right place and time, respecting international law can still be a good idea.

After Bosnia Western countries no longer want to stand and stare.

Another consequence of the war is the idea that leaders can be punished for what they have done.

I have testified three times at the former Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal in The Hague, twice against Bosnian Croat warlords, and then in the week that the Tunisian president was deposed last year, against the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic.

Did Bosnia's legacy contribute to the indictments, within months, of Messrs Gaddafi, Mubarak and sons?

I caught glimpses of the Tunisian revolution on television as I was escorted back and forth to the witness box.

In court the Arab tumult faded away, obscured by my first journalistic love, Sarajevo and its ghosts, the city of bullets and shells, of the indomitable, the villainous and the dead.

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