Marking the 20th anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo

This month marks a clutch of anniversaries ranging from the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago to John Major’s astonishing election victory in 1992.

More tumultuous events were taking place in Europe that same year, notably the escalation of war in Yugoslavia. While a 6-week conflict had marred Slovenia’s break-away from Belgrade the previous year, Croatia’s bid for independence quickly became ugly. It was, arguably, the announcement of independence by Bosnia-Herzegovina in March 1992 which triggered the most vicious and intractable conflict since World War II. At its heart, was the cruel siege of Sarajevo which lasted almost four years and inflicted untold suffering and loss of life on its population. That siege began in April 1992.

Conflict in Yugoslavia was a constant throughout my student days, through to when I began my first job working in the LibDem Whips’ Office in the House of Commons. Its horrors broadcast on a near daily basis for almost four years. It is hard not to be affected by that.

As a naïve student spending a year studying at Munich University in 1993, I jumped on a night train to Slovenia with a view to trying to make sense of the war that was unfolding less than 250 miles from where I studied.

Ljubljana, its pint-sized capital, was awash with UN and CSCE vehicles and staff taking a break from their work less than 100 miles further south. I remember the cafes and bars filled with international peacekeepers and media, the atmosphere heavy with debate about the course of the conflict and prospects for the Cyrus Owen peace plan. I stayed in the youth hostel which could accommodate several hundred; I was the only resident the entire week. I then travelled down to the Slovenian coastal centres of Koper and Portoroz which nestle next to the Croatian border; void of tourists and commercial activity, it was a salient reminder of the ripple effect of war.

It was, of course, the Liberal Democrats, and notably Paddy Ashdown, who championed the plight of the besieged in Sarajevo and called for international intervention in Bosnia; a call that was eventually heeded by NATO but not before the slaughter of thousands. An abiding memory of my early days working in the Commons was Paddy bounding through the Whips’ Office and straight into the Chamber for PMQs at which he kept up the pressure and awareness when many others were suffering from conflict fatigue. Accounts from his remarkable visits to the city made for sobering listening.

War in Yugoslavia was a scandal for the European Union (EU); disunity, indecision and, ultimately, inaction meant peace remained elusive and many lives were lost.

Surely, if there is one fitting tribute to the fallen of Yugoslavia it is the efforts by the EU in the aftermath of that war to both enlarge as well as develop a Common Foreign & Security Policy to safeguard the security of Europeans across the continent and beyond. Croatia will shortly follow Slovenia in joining the EU, and accession negotiations are ongoing with other Balkan nations. External European action means that the EU is now supporting police and security missions in countries as diverse as Kosovo to Congo.

War is abhorrent; we should never take peace in Europe for granted. If there’s one lesson we should draw, it is that the EU’s mission to bring an everlasting union is as pertinent today as it was 60 years ago and too important to be overshadowed by the shrill politics of insular jingoists.

* Andrew Wigley is a public affairs professional who has lived and worked in the US and the Middle East. He began his career working for the Liberal Democrats, first in London and then Brussels. He previously managed community and public affairs for an oil company with facilities near In Amenas.

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