Sarajevo under Siege: Anthropology in Wartime

Sarajevo under Siege: Anthropology in Wartime

Sarajevo under Siege: Anthropology in Wartime

Sarajevo under Siege: Anthropology in Wartime


Sarajevo Under Siege offers a richly detailed account of the lived experiences of ordinary people in this multicultural city between 1992 and 1996, during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Moving beyond the shelling, snipers, and shortages, it documents the coping strategies people adopted and the creativity with which they responded to desperate circumstances.

Ivana Maček, an anthropologist who grew up in the former Yugoslavia, argues that the division of Bosnians into antagonistic ethnonational groups was the result rather than the cause of the war, a view that was not only generally assumed by Americans and Western Europeans but also deliberately promoted by Serb, Croat, and Muslim nationalist politicians. Nationalist political leaders appealed to ethnoreligious loyalties and sowed mistrust between people who had previously coexisted peacefully in Sarajevo. Normality dissolved and relationships were reconstructed as individuals tried to ascertain who could be trusted.

Over time, this ethnography shows, Sarajevans shifted from the shock they felt as civilians in a city under siege into a "soldier" way of thinking, siding with one group and blaming others for the war. Eventually, they became disillusioned with these simple rationales for suffering and adopted a "deserter" stance, trying to take moral responsibility for their own choices in spite of their powerless position. The coexistence of these contradictory views reflects the confusion Sarajevans felt in the midst of a chaotic war.

Maček respects the subjectivity of her informants and gives Sarajevans' own words a dignity that is not always accorded the viewpoints of ordinary citizens. Combining scholarship on political violence with firsthand observation and telling insights, this book is of vital importance to people who seek to understand the dynamics of armed conflict along ethnonational lines both within and beyond Europe.


In the summer of 1991, war broke out in the former Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia. On my television set in Uppsala, I watched tanks belonging to the former Yugoslav People’s Army (Jugoslavenska narodna armija [JNA]) tear up the lawns in the parks of the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. I realized that something entirely beyond my comprehension was happening. I knew about wars in the past and in other parts of the world, but I had been taught that the Second World War was the last war there would ever be in Europe. Now, a new war was here. I did not know what it meant or what forms it would take, but I was sure that my understanding of the world would never be the same again.

The next shock came at the end of the summer: the war started in Croatia. I listened to a Swedish radio reporter saying that the air raid alert had just been heard in Zagreb, my hometown. He sounded very agitated, reporting from his hotel room near the railway station. The streets were empty as far as he could see, peeking through his window despite the warning to keep away from the windows. Journalists were cautioned not to use cameras, as snipers could easily mistake them for weapons. On television, I saw young armed men in black and camouflage clothing, mixing military and civilian garb, with black bands around their heads. Someone called Crni Marko (“Black Marko”) was giving an interview to the Swedish television network. With an air of self-satisfaction, he identified himself as a unit leader in the new Croatian army and explained that they were fighting for the long-awaited sovereignty of Croatia and freedom from Serbian hegemony. At the end, with a wide grin, he sent greetings to all the lovely Swedish girls. It was strange to see these big Rambo-like boys standing there as representatives of my own people and country.

I was even more deeply disturbed when I heard that one of my best friends had volunteered for the Croatian army. This young man had a genuine pacifist temperament. The year he did his obligatory military service he developed a nervous ulcer, not only because of the meaninglessness of his duties but also because he was an individualist who disliked any form of authoritarianism. He spoke four European languages, loved to travel, and rel-

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