They are a constant reminder of the bloody conflict in the early 1990s, in which around 100,000 people were killed.
This city, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was besieged for almost four years and 11,000 people died in Sarajevo alone.
Now the city is waging a completely different war.
In recent months, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken life here at a pace not seen since the siege nearly three decades ago. According to the government of the canton of Sarajevo, 698 people died of coronavirus in the city between March 1 and April 28 – with an average daily number of 13 and 10 in the respective months. During the siege of Sarajevo, an average of seven people died every day, including combatants. However, there were also gruesome mass accidents such as a market bombing in 1994 that killed 68 people.
Dr. Ismet Gavrankapetanović, head of Sarajevo’s General Hospital, recalls how he treated the many victims who came through his doors every day during the blockade in the 1990s with gunshot and fragmentation wounds.
And – as Bosnia is experiencing its deadliest period of the pandemic to date – 59-year-old Gavrankapetanović says there is now a familiar feeling in the emergency room.
“You can’t see your enemy and a lot of people are dying from this virus. This is really a war,” he told CNN.
“”[During the siege] In Sarajevo we were completely surrounded – a lot of injuries and a lot of problems, but it was very similar in the last three months [it’s a] difficult situation.”
Gavrankapetanović says that among the victims of the pandemic were many of his hospital colleagues – vulnerable to a government that appears to be slow to work together.
“We feel like … nobody cares about us,” he added.
53-year-old Mediha Slatina lost her husband Dr. Enes Slatina to the coronavirus. The 58-year-old was an emergency doctor in a clinic near Sarajevo Airport.
Slatina says he did everything possible to protect himself but couldn’t avoid contact with Covid-19 patients. The doctor fought the virus from a hospital bed for 16 days before dying.
Slatina had lost her father to Covid-19 two days earlier, and her mother-in-law died four days later. In a single week, the pandemic had claimed three of her closest relatives.
Slatina told CNN that she felt that the Bosnians were “left alone and betrayed”. She says her country suffers from a lack of coordination between the dizzying web of regional and local governments and national institutions.
“The problem will not be tackled by joint action,” she added. “Everyone cares about their own [region] but there is no common point that would address this issue, we need something on that [national] Level … and take things seriously. “
CNN reached out to the office of the current president of the national government, Milorad Dodik, who refused to provide anyone for comment.
Zoran Blagojević, PR advisor to the Prime Minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the country’s two autonomous regions, says his institution doesn’t even have a health minister at the national level. He told CNN that the national government – which has a presidency that alternates between the three main ethnic groups – should lead and coordinate the two main regional governments.
“In a lot of countries the system doesn’t work, but in our country it doesn’t work at all. It’s a very big problem of who is responsible for what and that’s why we are responsible for some of the problems like delay and delay in buying Vaccines, respirators or ventilators, “Blagojević told CNN. “The epidemic situation actually helps us to see very clearly how many things are not working in the system.”
For Blagojević and many observers, the problems begin with the breakdown of effective governance with the country’s constitutional law, which is based on a peace accord brokered in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, rather than on a traditional constitution. Since then, “nothing has been changed to improve the country’s functions.”
Sarajevo has largely been rebuilt since it was eroded by the war, but ethnic divisions are still anchored locally – including in the system of government in which largely Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats share power.
This complex arrangement was enshrined in the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war and was intended to prevent future conflicts. However, some observers say it has also made it difficult for the government to fight the pandemic effectively. National institutions are weak, and while the two main regional governments are strong, experts say they are often unwilling to coordinate and work together.
Adnan Ćerimagić, a senior analyst with the European Stability Initiative, said his country had put its hopes on buying vaccines from the COVAX program, which aims to help poorer countries get doses and excess supplies from the European Union received – to materialize what has happened so far.
While the rest of the western world is speeding up vaccinations to stave off another wave of infections, Bosnia and Herzegovina received just 226,800 doses of vaccine in late April, many of which were donated from Turkey, Serbia and China, according to figures and Ćerimagić’s bottom line. With a population of 3.3 million, this equates to around seven doses per 100 people – far below the European average of 29 doses per 100 people in mid-April.
More than a third of the country’s vaccine supply was either sourced or donated to a local or regional government, not a federal institution. One of the most important regional governments, the Republika Srpska, increased its supply with an order of 67,000 Sputnik V vaccines from Russia, said Ćerimagić.
The government’s failure to buy enough vaccines sparked protests in Sarajevo in early April.
“These protests were well meant and basically reflected the state of mind of [the] Majority of the population, “said Ćerimagić.
“They have been told for months that the authorities are doing nothing to buy vaccines while Croatia has started the vaccination program and Serbia is a global success in vaccination,” he added.
In fact, Serbia’s rollout has been so successful that citizens can choose which of the five brands of vaccine they should be injected with.
Last month, Bosnia’s Balkan neighbor even opened its vaccination program to foreigners. Bosnians flocked across the border to get a shot in response. According to the Serbian Prime Minister, around 40,000 foreigners have been vaccinated so far, the largest group of them Bosnians.
“We are a small region and if you are not sure, even if we get collective immunity, we will not be safe,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić told CNN at the time.
In response to rising infection rates, Sarajevo imposed curfews and restrictions in March – but as in many places around the world, the fragile economy cannot afford to be closed for long.
According to Ćerimagić, the restrictions were relaxed at the first sign of falling case numbers. While the curfew remained overnight, shops and cafes have reopened, some even indoors.
This cycle of lockdown restrictions is unsustainable, claims the mayor of Sarajevo, Benjamina Karić.
“We’re going to lock down the city, we’re going to lock down the people, but without vaccines it doesn’t mean much,” she said.
The mayor is also frustrated that higher levels of government have failed to get enough vaccines.
“I think the worst part is that this could be stopped, just as the war could be stopped in the 90s. Now we can buy vaccines, we have money to buy vaccines, but we don’t have a system.” She has added.
Your views are supported by Dr. Bakir Nakaš, a retired doctor who specializes in infectious diseases who ran Sarajevo General Hospital during the war. He now lives in a small wooden country house surrounded by green hills outside the city. That is where he feels safest, away from the crowds of Sarajevo. According to Nakaš, not only were the Covid-19 restrictions too weak, but vaccine procurement efforts were also too weak.
“Everyone in our region started vaccinating their citizens as of January this year, and Bosnia and Herzegovina did not have enough vaccines to start,” he said.
Nakaš attributes the delay to a lack of government coordination and is not optimistic that it will improve. “I cannot be sure that Sarajevo’s citizens will be protected by the end of this year,” he added.
The current hospital director Gavrankapetanović agrees. “Without the vaccination, I’m sure we’ll have a fourth wave soon. And I’m also sure this will be a never-ending crisis,” he said.
Last month, the Bare Cemetery in central Sarajevo struggled to keep up with the pace of burials. On the way through this huge complex, the freshly sealed graves of the pandemic victims begin, while the white tombstones mark the cul-de-sac of the Bosnian War.
At the cemetery, Ramiza Tahirović bought flowers to lay on the grave of her nephew Ismet Osmanović, who had died of Covid-19 just seven days earlier. At 45, he spent more than two weeks in the hospital, which was connected to oxygen.
“Then after 15 days they put him in the intensive care unit and put him on a ventilator and we never spoke to him or saw him again,” said Tahirović.
When asked if she’s afraid of the virus, she replies, “I’m crying, I’m scared. I’m 75 and I don’t see any progress … so many people are still dying.”
Despite her age, Tahirović says she will not get the vaccine because she is unsure of its safety. In the midst of Sarajevo’s increasing death, she is no longer convinced of much.
“I don’t trust the doctors, I don’t trust the government, I don’t trust anyone,” she explains. “The trams and buses are full of people, many of them are asymptomatic, I just don’t feel safe.”
Tim Lewis, Fred Pleitgen and Claudia Otto contributed to this report.