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20 years ago, Bosnia war like bad dream

A woman mourns among 613 coffins of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in July, 2011.  The newly-identified remains  were buried on the 16th anniversary of the massacre of at least 8,300 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who sought safety at the U.N.-protected enclave at Srebrenica, and were killed by members of the Republic of Serbia (Republika Srpska) army under the leadership of General Ratko Mladic. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Dispatches remembers...

April 1 is the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War. Rick MacInnes-Rae watched it coming, for CBC News. His recollections:

For me, the days leading up the formal start of the Bosnian War were a time of strange misdirection from the firestorm to come.

The political process was unravelling. Weapons were being broken out. I could see puffs of smoke as mortars spit their rounds into a distant neighbourhood near Mount Igman, a strategic vantage point the Serbs wouldn't relinquish for another three years.

But in the streets of Sarajevo, there was this inexplicable...indifference.

Despite the mortaring, ambulance sirens weren't tearing the air.  Every morning, the cafes were full of civilians drinking strong, silty coffee. Duplo. Doubles over here please.

It seemed the same old Sarajevo which had hosted the Olympics just eight years earlier. The city where Muslims, Serbs and Croats lived in harmony, inter-married, raised families.  Ate grilled ćevapčići on skewers, washed down with a frosty pivo or a glass of Dingac red.

It was known by some as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, one of the few cities in Europe where you could find a place to worship in four faiths on the same neighbourhood.

But gradually, by night, hard-looking men in Bosnian uniform began to appear, drinking plum brandy in smoke-filled bars watching MTV, where the same concert by Queen seemed to play over and over again. Freddie Mercury strutting in tights, men in uniform, getting tight. 

And the street barricades began to appear, some of them manned by drunken paramilitaries in no kind of uniform.

Then paranoia set in. And justifiably so. As my departure drew near, a local reporter asked if I'd smuggle his child out of the country.

He suggested putting the kid in the trunk of my car.

It wasn't going to be safe much longer, he said, to which I reminded him there was no way I could guarantee his child's security. Which proved too true. I couldn't even be sure of my own.

A few days later, our crew left, heading south for the mountains and the coast. But arriving at a blockade, the man with the gun stood his ground. A paramilitary.

My interpreter Boris, of Russian descent, began to panic, knowing the historic Serb alliance with Russia would not play well at a Bosnian Croat or Muslim roadblock. The first lesson of the Balkans. There is no such thing as ancient history. All offenses are recent and remembered.

His nervously slipped me his passport and other ID, opting to try and bluff it out, pretending to be a displaced Croat on the run. But the para didn't care to know. He leaned in the window, said something surly, and pointed back the way we'd come.

In the moment, it made sense to do what the man with the gun said to do.

We regrouped in Sarajevo and resolved to try running the gauntlet again the next day. And this time, no blockade. We got out of Bosnia, heading for Zagreb, then home, just ahead of the official start of the war.

On June 20, 1992, the veil fell away. I wasn't there on the day. But Kemal Kurspahić was, editing the now-famous Oslobodjenje newspaper, reporting its 10-storey office building had been turned into a Roman candle by tanks and shellfire.

No misdirection there.

And today, 17 years after the peace that divided the country into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb statelet, the politicians still feud. It took 16 months for parliament just to agree, last month, a new central government. The Obama adminstration has often warned the stability of the region remains fragile.

And on my last venture there several years ago, it had become an unpoliced crossroads for the trade in guns and people.

But back in the day, if you'd told me that Bosnia was about to become a huge kill zone, I wouldn't have believed you. Many Sarajevans wouldn't have believed you. I would have gone home.

If you'd told me in a matter of years, shelling, snipers, starvation, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps would kill nearly 100,000 people, I would have been ashamed to leave.

As it was, I and many others from CBC News kept returning to a story that continues to offer a caution for future generations.

The politics are parlous.

It can start with a puff of smoke.

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