Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sarajevo: anniversary of the war

The events to mark the anniversary of the war in the Balkans, a major feature of which was the siege of Sarajevo, have a particular resonance for me. The BBC coverage is here (do watch the video clip at the top of this report) and here.

There are some very striking implications of the avenue of empty chairs adopted as the symbol of remembrance. It seems to me represent the remembrance of the people of a city, rather than of a particular nation or ethnic community. It at once represents the remembrance of the people and of each and every individual person - represented by those who stand by and cry and by those who place a flower to represent their grief for those they know who died during the siege. As the speaker in the BBC video says, everyone has their chair. It is a great tribute, I think, to the people of the city of Sarajevo that they can put together such a rich and telling symbol of their remembrance and one that so much represents the sense of the ordinary people of the city rather than of politicians.

There is also a sadness that it does not appear possible to to note that remembrance in a way that is religious.

The personal resonance comes from the family whose story is told in these two programmes from BBC Radio 4's Home Truths: Escape from Sarajevo and Escape from Sarajevo Pt 2. The BBC site does not appear to have the full programmes available to listen again. I got to know the family when Maya was in my tutor group, and when I was teaching her A-level Physics. I saw something of the difficulty of the children's relations with their parents that is related in the programmes.

The BBC reporter remembers:
There is a moment that returns to me again and again. An old man emerges from a wood and makes his way towards where I am standing. The lovely green valley has tipped into autumnal browns and it is a cold, damp morning.

The old man is one of 40,000 people driven from their homes in the central Bosnian town of Jajce, and they have been walking for two days to reach safety....

I asked the man how old he was. He said he was 80. May I ask you, I said, are you a Muslim or a Croat? And the answer he gave me still shames me as it echoes down the decades in my head. I am, he said, a musician.
I have an identical memory, that also has lasted the 15 years or so since, of the time when I eventually asked Maya whether or not she had a religious belief of her own. Her answer was: "I am a Martian".  I have regretted asking the question ever since. I was struck at the time by how the manipulation of peoples sensibilities by the political situation, by the warfare and by the media appeared to have made religious belief impossible for a generation. This family desperately resisted any attempts to take sides in the conflict engulfing their city and, if my memory is correct, it was the two girls who insisted that they take part in the peace rally in April 1992 referred to in the first Home Truths programme.

One thing that teachers are able to do is to give young people chances in life that they might otherwise not have. Maya's story is the one of those that I use as an example of this.

Oddly enough, I also gained an insight into how military technology played a part in the eventual ending of the siege of Sarajevo. At the time, I had an educational link to a company called Siemens-Plessey Systems, whose factory in Ilford began life in the early days of television manufacturing, though during the time of my link it focussed on military electronics. The factory became part of BAE Systems, and has now been demolished to make way for a housing estate. In the early 1990's they worked on developing a passive acoustic artillery location system (ie a sophisticated system of microphones, weather stations and computers) as an urgent operational requirement (ie we needed it yesterday) for deployment with British forces serving around Sarajevo. When the system was deployed, British artillery were then moved to positions on Mt Ickman and returned fire at the Serbian artillery and mortar positions shelling the city.

But rather more important was the quality of the information about firing positions gained by the system. International forces were able to say with absolute certainty, not just where shells landed, but where they had been fired from. And it was the political pressure resulting from this, as much as the military response, that eventually eased the shelling of Sarajevo.

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