Shell-shocked in Sarajevo
After fourteen months under siege, some youths decided to put on an impromptu ball game on the third day of the Muslim holiday Kurban Bajram, in war-torn Bosnia. A tournament unfortunately no one could win. Arghya Lahiri looks back at one of the most infamous incidents of the twentieth century where Football, War and Politics coincided to dish out a terrible cocktail of blood, misery and death
The Political Imbroglio
From about 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991, Yugoslavia (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and later Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) was a communist state behind the Iron Curtain like other countries of Eastern Europe. Its supreme leader, Marshal Josip Broz Tito refused to be a puppet of Moscow and ruled Yugoslavia for 35 years on his own terms, going on to become one of the main people behind the NAM (Non-Aligned Movement). The country of Yugoslavia was made up of different smaller nations like Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The most powerful of these were Serbs and thus other communities like the Bosniaks, Croats and Slovenes were more or less oppressed. After the death of Marshal Tito in 1980, ethnic nationalism got intensified. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall, triggered people of different ethnic groups other than Serbs to form their own states. It caused several conflicts, from 1991 to 1999, among people of different cultures. Between 1992 and 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina fought a fearsome war against the Serbs (and for a certain duration Croats too) as the Serbian leadership did not support the formation of state Bosnia-Herzegovina (which was already accepted by the UN) and formed a self-proclaimed Serb-ruled state, Republic of Srpska in the Bosnia-Herzegovina region. Long time friends, neighbours, fellow sportsmen and colleagues took up arms against each other. VRS (Army of Republic of Srpska backed by Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which later became Serbia and Montenegro) and HVO (Croatian Defence Council of the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia, later Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia during the Bosnian War, backed by Croatia) attacked different cities and towns of Bosnia. Sarajevo and its neighbouring areas were under siege. SRK (Serbian Romanja Corps unit) was majorly responsible for the siege and attack on Dobrinja.
Welcome to Dobrinja
Surrounded by the Dinaric Alps and along the Miljacka River in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, the beautiful Sarajevo is an often admired city by people from different parts of the world. The capital, founded in the 15th century, gets its name from the word ‘serai’, meaning ‘palace’ in Turkish. In time, it went on to become a military, administrative and commercial centre of Ottoman Turkish Empire in the Balkans. The site has served as a backdrop for many an important historical event that mostly engaged in turbulent combats.
Dobrinja happens to be a neighbourhood west of Sarajevo, populated mostly by Bosnian Muslims. It was built in 1983, as part of the Winter Olympics hosted by Sarajevo, the following year. The suburb served as a Games Village for accommodating the participating athletes, foreign journalists and other media facilities. Since the start of the fearsome war in 1992, gunfire and shelling became a part of the daily lives of the people in Dobrinja. Most of the buildings which once housed the Winter Olympics sportspeople were heavily damaged. For a long time, people of Dobrinja faced shortage of food and medicine. Water, electric and other essential supplies and amenities were scarce too. Dobrinja was sandwiched between the hills of Mojmilo, the airport and army barracks of the Serbs. The Serbs could anytime bombard the place with heavy artillery, they even placed snipers in the abandoned high-rise buildings.
One Magnificent Morning
It was a Tuesday – June 1, 1993: the day of Kurban Bajram (Greater Eid – also known as Eid-Al-Adha, Haji-Adha, Eid-Ul-Zoha or Bakrid), a holy day for the Muslims. People were tired of the year-long war and wanted to live free from the violence. They chose to celebrate life and forget about their agonies, the blood-shed and the bullets. And in what better way could this be achieved than playing the beautiful game? So, just a couple of days before the festival, they decided to organise a football tournament to commemorate their special day. In the last few months, the frequency of shelling had reduced considerably which paved a way for these war-stricken souls to come up with an idea of a football game to mark the auspicious day. They realised it would not be wise to play in any of the open grounds as that would turn them into ‘sitting ducks’ to the snipers and artillery regiments, but they were enthusiastic to play the game against all odds. They selected a parking lot as a makeshift football field. On three of its sides stood tall apartments while the fourth faced a hill. It helped them gain confidence in being protected from random shell attacks. Selecting a parking lot meant they would not get to play on grass, but who cares when you get an opportunity to play football in the middle of war? At least they could enjoy that one day. Apparently they valued it more than their lives.
Hundreds of people gathered to watch the tournament on the day of Festival of Sacrifice. Many preferred watching from the windows of the surrounding apartments. Goal posts were backed by cars damaged during war. It was a sunny day and a gentle breeze blew across the neighbourhood. The first match started at around 9:00 am. Several soldiers from the Army of Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina were present there. A few of them even participated in the tournament. The first match was an hour long and got over successfully. In the meantime, the crowd began to swell. Everyone seemed joyous irrespective of the result of the match. Before long, play started for the second match. Occasional rounds of gunfire reverberated in the background, but such a phenomenon being an everyday occurrence for the people of Dobrinja, barely made any difference. The football audience were engrossed in the show put up before them. Every attack and counter-attack, throw-in and free-kick was being cheered vociferously!
Mortal Massacre: Bloodbath in Bosnia
It was 10:20 am on the clock and time stopped over Dobrinja. Players had gathered near a penalty box as a penalty was about to be taken when a mortar projectile, fired from a then unknown location, dropped close to the penalty spot and exploded. Soon everyone started running for cover. Some came forward to assist the injured; they were being dragged to safer places while some were crawling on the bleak asphalt. No sooner had the people begun to evacuate the scene than another shell got fired. The second one caused more damage and few people were killed on the spot. Within minutes, the makeshift football ground turned into a pool of blood. The people had wanted to celebrate the day of Feast of the Sacrifice by playing football but ended up sacrificing their own lives and faith on humanity.
Blood-soaked asphalt, a worn-out football and a few blood-stained shoes lay there as a sign of the abrupt demise of hope building around football. Only a couple of hours back that parking lot was full of mirth and merriment with people from all ages heartily rejoicing in the festive spirit.
This indiscriminate attack left several victims lethally wounded with the local hospitals flooded with civilian casualties in no time. They were weeping, howling, cursing; they were annoyed, they were dumbstruck. Some were inclined to believe that the Serbs were informed about the football tournament by local traitors, enabling them to open fire with such precision that it led to a fatal outcome. The shelling took a heavy toll on residents of that area. Mass killings, mostly by mortar attacks, made headlines the following day. The attack killed 13 people, among them four children, and injured 133 others. The Guardian reported the story with a title that read, “Blood and tears end a soccer game that no one could win.”
Later, various international organisations, including the United Nations, investigated the incident and revealed that the mortar bombs were mercilessly fired by Sarajevo-Romanija Corps (SRK) of VRS on innocent civilians when no fight was on. In International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), in The Hague, Ratko Mladić (former chief of staff of Army of Republika Srpska), Radovan Karadžić (former president of Republika Srpska and designated supreme commander of its armed forces) and Stanislav Galić (commander of SRK) were indicted by the UN for war crimes and crime against humanity in the 1992-95 Bosnian War. This incident was discussed, among others, as proof of their crime. They may be punished eventually but that will not bring back the lives of those individuals who decided to enjoy the beautiful game one fine morning, moving beyond their conflicts and fears, only to pay the ultimate price.