SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnians walked silently and sobbed on Sarajevo's main street, leaving flowers and gifts on 11,541 red chairs arranged in seemingly endless rows – the number represents the men, women and children killed in a siege that ended up being the longest of a city in modern history.
Sarajevo marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war Friday. Exhibitions, concerts and performances were held, but the impact of the empty chairs reduced many to tears.
"It's as if the whole tragedy materialized, became visible," said Asja Rasavac, who covered her face with an umbrella, embarrassed for not being able to control the tears. "One cannot even describe the feeling. It's not hatred. It's not anger. It's just endless sadness."
Hundreds of the chairs were small, representing the slain children. On some, passers-by left teddy bears, little plastic cars, other toys or candy.
"The amount of the chairs really hit me, especially the little ones," said Ana Macanovic, who placed white roses on seven chairs – each for a member of her family killed by mortar shells during the siege.
Of the tens of thousands of passers-by, hardly anyone spoke a word. Many just walked and sobbed, overwhelmed by the length of the red river of empty chairs.
"This city needs to stop for a moment and pay tribute to its killed citizens," said Haris Pasovic, organizer of the "Sarajevo Red Line."
The Serb siege of Sarajevo went on longer than the World War II 900-day siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. Its 380,000 people were left without food, electricity, water or heating for 46 months, hiding from the 330 shells a day that smashed into the city.
On the fateful day of April 6, 1992, around 40,000 people from all over the country – Muslim Bosniaks, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats – poured into a square further down the red street to demand peace from their quarreling nationalist politicians.
The European Community had recognized the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia as an independent state after most of its people voted for independence. But the vote went down along ethnic lines, with Bosniaks and Croats voting for independence, and Bosnian Serbs preferring to stay with Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
The ethnic unity being displayed on the Sarajevo square irritated Serb nationalists, who then shot into the crowd from a nearby hotel, killing five people and igniting the 1992-1995 war. The Serb nationalists, helped by neighboring Serbia, laid siege to Sarajevo and within a few months occupied 70 percent of Bosnia, expelling all non-Serbs from territory they controlled.
Bosniaks and Croats – who started off as allies – then turned against each other, so all three groups ended up fighting a war that took more than 100,000 lives, made half of the population homeless and left the once-ethnically mixed country devastated and divided into mono-ethnic enclaves.
Gianni Spanghero, 56, watched the reports on TV at his home in Gorizia, Italy, and says he couldn't really understand this was going on so close to Italy back then. He has never been in Sarajevo before and for Easter holidays decided to visit the city during the commemoration with his 15-year-old daughter Francesca.
"I read about it in the newspapers. It is so impressive. It is as if the city is talking to it's dead and saying: 'we miss you,' he said.
"I'm shocked. This is sad. Very sad," Francesca said as she fought back tears.
Shop windows displayed photographs made during the war, showing the daily suffering of the residents.
Bosnia's foreign minister, Zlatko Lagumdzija also could not control his tears.
"We owe it to the people that are not here, that we have a future here," he said. "Most of us have someone missing here."
While remembering the dead, many also cannot forget feeling that the international community had let them down during the war. All the world did was condemn the horrors in Bosnia and send food packages. What Sarajevo residents really wanted was an end to the death and destruction, the restoration of electricity, water and heating, a halt to the shelling and sniping every day.
"Those chairs are for the international community," former Bosnian vice president Ejup Ganic said. "The international community that did not help us during the war ... it is a picture of the world somehow at that time. But life goes on. We have peace without justice."
A 1995 peace agreement brokered by the U.S. ended the shooting, but its compromises left the nation ethnically divided into two ministates – one for Serbs, the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats – linked by a central government.
Ethnic mistrust is keeping the groups in Bosnia separated. Children in school are learning three different versions of history, calling their common language by three different names – Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian – and are growing isolated from each other in monoethnic enclaves.
Bosnia's leaders are still arguing about the future of the country: should it be unified or should it remain divided.
A new generation, children who were born after the war, had only one message for them on Friday.
At the end of the ceremony, they lined up among the red chairs and sang John Lennon's legendary song: "All we are saying is give peace a chance."