The Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was the site of the most prominent siege of the Balkan wars that attended Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the early 1990s. On April 6, 1992, Serb forces began shelling the city from hillside positions and occupied several neighborhoods. Given the city’s poor defenses, few imagined the siege would last some three and a half years.
The 1992–95 battle was the longest siege in modern history. It was also the most international, attracting aid workers, U.N. soldiers, journalists and smugglers. The city became the media face of post–Cold War conflict and humanitarian intervention. However, some critical activities took place away from the cameras, including clandestine trading across siege lines, theft and diversion of aid, and complicity in the black market by peacekeeping forces. The conflict changed the repertoires of siegecraft and siege defenses and altered the strategic calculations of both besiegers and besieged.
Had Sarajevo fallen, the outcome of the conflict would have radically changed. Given the Serbs’ military advantage, many expected the city to fall quickly or that Serb leaders would soon back down and the siege would be short-lived. It did not turn out that way. This was puzzling, as siege warfare in Europe was supposed to be obsolete. In Sarajevo it not only returned with a vengeance but also persisted.
The internationalization of the siege, which aimed to end the conflict, also helped perpetuate it. For many local and international actors, the partial permeability of the city made the siege politically tolerable, militarily acceptable and economically profitable. Siege dynamics were often more about controlling humanitarian supplies and smuggling routes than about military success or failure. While most of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants struggled for survival (some 10,000 died and many more were wounded), a semiporous siege kept the city supplied.
For the Serbs, the siege kept the city bottled up and useful as a political lever while distracting attention from more severe atrocities elsewhere. For Sarajevo’s political leaders, the siege helped consolidate their party’s position, marginalize opponents and sustain international sympathy and support. For the UN and its sponsors, the siege provided a way to showcase aid provision in the Bosnian War, avoid more direct military entanglement and contain a further flood of refugees. For journalists, the siege offered a front-row seat in a high-drama spectacle. And for black-market entrepreneurs on all sides, the siege assured a captive market with highly inflated profits.
Following NATO airstrikes against Serb positions encircling the city and a shift in the military balance in favor of the Bosnian army, the fighting in Sarajevo ended in October 1995 with a cease-fire. Although the fighting stopped with the cease-fire and subsequent signing of the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Agreement in November, the city did not entirely reopen and reintegrate until March 1996.
■ Siege warfare lives. Sieges tend to be associated with epic historical battles. Yet from Sarajevo to Falluja and Gaza, modern sieges have persisted.
■ Sieges now have a global audience. Just as changes in weapons transformed siege warfare, so too has the arrival of CNN, NGOs, satellite phones, U.N. peacekeepers and aid convoys.
■ The line between patriot and profiteer is fuzzy. Some Sarajevo defenders robbed the people, and some besiegers profited from supplying the besieged.
■ Criminality is double-edged. Criminals both looted the city and contributed to its defense. The weapons-procurement system invited corruption and rewarded covert operations, but it was vital to Sarajevo’s defense.
■ Humanitarian aid is part of the war economy. Aid shipments were “taxed” at checkpoints and partially diverted to the black market, while military and other supplies were sometimes camouflaged as humanitarian materiel.
■ Embargoes can backfire. Sanctions such as arms embargoes can substitute for military intervention and signal international condemnation, but they can also create economic opportunities for smugglers and blackmarket entrepreneurs.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.