Updated: Jan 15
Sarajevo was not a favourite for tourists in the mid-90s.
It's amazing how much of history, particularly recent history, isn't included in the national curriculum. For years on end, I remember learning the same stuff over and over again about the Romans, the Tudors and the Victorians. All I remember from GCSE History are some vague facts regarding Tsar Nicholas II and his downfall in 1918.
One thing I certainly didn't learn about, either in History or Geography, was how various European states broke up in the late 20th Century. Indeed, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, along with events such as the 'Siege of Sarajevo', was not part of my education, a fact which seems utterly bizarre to me having learnt about it since. Assuming that the same goes for any readers of this article, let's take a quick history lesson about it.
In 1992, a referendum in Bosnia and Herzegovina on whether to secede from Yugoslavia fell in the favour of independence. Following the result, 13,000 Bosnian Serbs - most of whom boycotted the vote - surrounded the city of Sarajevo and launched a siege on the city. Despite the city having 70,000 soldiers on the inside, their equipment paled in comparison to the tanks and heavy artillery that their attackers had brought with them. The siege lasted for nearly four years, starting in early April 1992 and ending on 29th February 1996. In total, 13,952 people were killed, including 5434 civilians.
Living in the city at that time was like living in Hell. No doubt the scariest part was the constant presence of snipers in the hills, always watching and waiting, picking targets seemingly at random. When shells were dropping, at least the attack was obvious. But going for a walk to the shops could end with a bullet to your head and you just didn't know. It was a horrific time; unimaginable for most of us.
But, for a few hours on the night of 14th December 1994, there was some respite.
With the aid of the UN, former (at the time) Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson, along with his band, slipped into Sarajevo to play a concert. It seems like a simple enough act but of course, it was anything but. They had to avoid Serbian forces, market the gig without letting them know and ensure the safety of everyone involved. To say it was risky would be an understatement - but Bruce was determined to do this for those suffering in the middle of a war zone. Having been invited by UN peacekeeping ambassador Major Martin, the idea was floated and there were some moments when it looked like it wouldn't happen, but he pushed it through.
And it was worth it. Speaking on the documentary 'Scream For Me Sarajevo', resident Erol Gagula said that "for me and my friends, the only true ambassador during the war was Dickinson, and the most important event was the concert".
Another resident spoke of how his friend, Amer, started a band after the concert, calling it The Rain. It sounds like a fairly standard name until you learn that it was reference to the "rain of shells we endured every single day". In the summer of 1995, Amer was recruited. He never came home.
It greatly affected the band members too. Bassist Chris Dale was in tears as he spoke of what he saw, saying that "It was around Christmas and people at home where buying presents, celebrating, getting drunk. I couldn't do that [after the gig]. I was only there for two-three days. [These people] lived through it. It changed how I viewed the world."
Bruce himself agreed. "It left an impression on me that will stay with me my whole life."
What Dickinson and his band did for those who attended the concert is simply immeasurable. It was the one moment of light amidst four years of death and Hell for those who attended, a beacon of hope and a reminder that, outside of Sarajevo, a normal world existed, a life without war. Unsurprisingly, Dickinson, already popular enough of course, became a hero to these people.
21 years later, Dickinson returned to Sarajevo as part of the documentary and in 2019, he was made an Honorary Citizen of the city, with City Mayor Abdulah Skaka describing the concert as "one of those moments when we in Sarajevo realized we will survive."
It feels fitting to talk about this now, in a time when concerts are simply not happening. Imagine how good it will feel to return to concerts, hopefully later this year. The crowds will be louder and more passionate than ever, and you can bet the artists will feel exactly the same way. Concerts are about far more than just the music being played; they bring a sense of comfort, community and pure joy for those who attend. It's why Ariana Grande responded to the Manchester bombing with another, bigger, better concert. They are elation in the form of live music.
It's utterly fascinating that Bruce's Sarajevo concert isn't more widely known. How many artists have specifically driven into a war zone, knowing full well they will be targets, in order to bring two hours of joy to some people they don't know? It's a tremendous act of courage from Bruce and his band and it changed the world for everyone involved.
Today, Sarajevo is an ever-growing, populous and, most importantly, peaceful city. It is largely rebuilt and has largely focussed its efforts on culture and entertainment. It's difficult not to think that Dickinson's concert played a small part in this. He brought light to a seemingly endless night for the residents during the siege and no doubt influenced and inspired those who would later help in getting the city back on its feet. The concert may only have been a brief moment in the city's long and illustrious history, but its role in keeping the city's spirit alive means that it, and those who played it, will never be forgotten.
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