Grbavica: Sarajevo's open wound


The treatment of Grbavica, the suburb of Sarajevo occupied by Serb Chetnik forces, is as uncertain as the future of the city as a whole. The suburb remains an inglorious symbol of the collective traumas suffered by the city during two years of siege and bombardment. Despite the partial pull-back of Serbian forces, Sarajevo is still besieged and just as divided as the Cypriot town of Nicosia or Berlin was in the past. Here we publish an account of the suffering of Grbavica by three Sarajevan citizens, M. Kristic, A. Hafner and A. Pandzo.

"Welcome to the Serbian Republic", are the first words that greet you as you enter Sarajevo's occupied suburb, Grbavica. You are greeted by the flag of that "republic", which hangs on a half burned-out skyscraper, and by hidden Serb police who follow your steps with binoculars.

As you enter, you are allocated one of the policemen as your private guard, whose task is to control harmless meetings of families separated by the division of the city. Young women are immediately propositioned: "Baby, are you Serbian?". Negative responses initiate rude disapproval from the gathered soldiers.

Getting out of Grbavica is very difficult for the local population. People in the main part of the city can never know when you will get a visit from a relative or a friend who was captured on the other side of the river Miljacka.

Bureaucratic procedures are so insistent that people are kept waiting for hours on the bridge connecting the two parts of the city. While you are waiting for the announced visit, it takes so long that you can get sunburned. A young boy was once asked: "Where did you get so tanned?". He answered, "On the bridge of Brotherhood and Unity, while I was waiting for my mother to come from Grbavica".

The atmosphere in Grbavica is permanently threatening: you have to have the official papers to justify every step you make, and non-Serbs feel that something terrible could happen at any moment. One of the first to visit Grbavica as the siege slackened asked his cousin, "Do you still gamble?". The cousin's reply was, "Yes I do, but I gamble with my own life".

At the beginning of June 1992, the Serb Chetniks just walked into Grbavica, without a single shot being fired. The Serbs emptied the shopping centre and robbed it. At first the Serb occupiers were ordinary reservists, and the treatment of the local population was not too bad. But then the forces of Arkan and Seselj [Serb extremists and war criminals] started to arrive and even ethnic Serbs became afraid. When the reservists left, a gang of drunkards started to plunder everybody, even Serbs.

As soon as the reserve army left Grbavica, killings of Muslims and Croats became usual. The first massacres were conducted in the houses around the Flamingo coffee bar, near the front line with the Bosnian army in central Sarajevo.

Ethnic Serbs were moved out of this area, but non-Serbs had heavy machine-guns put in their apartments and were immediately put in the firing line.

Hundreds of non-Serb Bosnians were killed in this way, and the area has become a mass graveyard. The Serb Chetniks conducted constant house searches and interrogations: no non-Serb was able to avoid these. Even some Serbs had problems.

According to a Bosnian woman, searches by Chetnik women soldiers were equally harsh. She says: "The only thing of value left in my flat after the male Chetniks searched and robbed it were my sheepskin coat and a few decorative items. Those were all my dear memories. For men, those things have no value at all. However, after the first woman Chetnik entered my flat, there was nothing left for the second one to rob. So she did to me what was worse than any robbery. She cut my hair with a shaving machine. Thus, instead of hair, I had only a few scars and wounds on my head".

In addition to searches were "stronger" forms of intimidation — proclamations on the walls saying that it was necessary for non-Serbs to leave Grbavica. The proclamations told of "detention centres", where the ones who did not want to leave Grbavica should assemble. But this was just intimidation. Few people are allowed to leave.

Even the departure of ethnic Serbs for Serbia is not easy. It is necessary to know and bribe the guards on duty that night and to falsify documents.

For Muslims and Croats, such departures are perilous. All of those who succeeded in escaping mentioned Serb neighbours who helped them.

In Grbavica, Muslims are the people of the tenth class and Croats of the ninth. They always fear the late night knock at the door, and people over 18 years of age are forced into work units.

The situation for women is especially terrifying. Many young women have testified to the activities of "Batko", one of Arkan's men, a notorious rapist and torturer. One young woman says, "It was the most difficult when Batko was coming and threatening that he would kill me. He was coming every day. Sometimes, he was in a good temper and he was offering me cigarettes. On the other hand, sometimes, he would simply come and cut me with a knife. You never knew what could happen. He tortured me more than he tortured others.

"Batko raped a 14 year-old girl. She became pregnant but was eventually rescued in an exchange of prisoners between the two parts of the city."

What we have written here are just glimpses of what the population of Grbavica has had to go through. Because of the continued division of the city, all the facts are not known and a complete history will have to await the end of the war and the opening of all the archives. But as the negotiations drag on, whether the Bosnia is in the news or not, "Welcome to the Serbian Republic" remains the terrifying sign on the bridge of Brotherhood and Unity, and the suffering of the people of Grbavica continues. [Information from Bosnet/Pegasus.]