Yugoslavia 1991 How Can a War Start If Nobody Wants It?

Twenty-five years ago, Yugoslavia's best-known musicians gave a concert in Sarajevo. Those in attendance were sure of one thing: There should not and would not be a war. Then all hell broke loose. A new project is looking for people who were at the show.

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By Carolyn Braun, Marcus Pfeil and Danijel Visevic

They loved music and sought peace. Full of hope, they gathered at the Zetra Olympic Hall in Sarajevo on July 28, 1991. Davor Ebner was standing onstage inside the huge event hall in the Bosnian capital. At the time, Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the six constituent republics that made up the multi-ethnic Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Davor was the lead singer of Regina, a band that had been selling out arenas all across the country. Yet even for a musician as successful as Davor, the atmosphere that night was special. "The energy was extraordinary," he remembers today.

At the time, the political climate in Yugoslavia was already toxic. Fighting had broken out in the neighboring republic of Croatia, but the concert at Zetra bolstered people's hopes. Thirty-thousand fans were dancing inside the hall with an additional 50,000 in front of it. Hundreds of thousand from all across the country had come to Sarajevo and the concert was broadcast on TV. Musicians, speakers, the audience: All were convinced that this evening would bring back peace.

Nobody in attendance could imagine what would happen just a few months later: Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs all fighting against each other. It was the beginning of a war that would ultimately cost the lives of more than 100,000 people. Before long, Zetra was transformed into a mortuary.

On the Eve of the Yugoslav War: The Concert at Zetra

"That day, people came together to celebrate peace. It was not a passive audience - they were part of it," says Milan Trivic. At the time of the concert, Trivic worked for Yutel, Yugoslavia's last independent broadcaster. He came up with the idea for the concert along with a few rock bands.

The evening of July 28, 1991 was the pinnacle of the anti-war movement in Yugoslavia, a movement that hardly anyone remembers today. Only months later, barricades were erected in Sarajevo. A young soldier carrying an AK-47 asked Trivic: "What's your nationality?" Trivic lost his home and became a prisoner in his own city, the besieged Sarajevo.

Virtually Overnight, Neighbors Began Shooting at Neighbors

The siege of Sarajevo was one of the most tragic episodes of the war in the Balkans. Virtually overnight, neighbors began shooting at neighbors, friends turned into enemies and families were torn apart. News of war crimes became more and more frequent - of mass expulsions, massacres and concentration camps.

The old Yugoslavia broke apart and its inhabitants suffered terrible tragedies. For Europe as a whole, the war amounted to a catastrophe in the midst of a time of hope and enthusiasm. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, the Warsaw Pact had collapsed and the last great European conflict seemed to have come to an end.

  • How did war break out in former Yugoslavia? What role did political leaders play and how important was the peace movement? You can find answers to the most important questions about the Yugoslav war here.

Just when most people on the continent believed that - after two world wars and the Cold War - they were on a path to peace and liberty, Europe witnessed a return to barbarity in the Balkans.

But with so many people raising their vices against the war, how could the situation deteriorate so drastically? The concert at Zetra Hall, after all, was not an isolated incident. In 1991 and 1992, there were peace demonstrations and concerts all over Yugoslavia. Sociologist Janja Bec estimates that 40,000 soldiers in the Yugoslav People's Army deserted and more than 100,000 recruits resisted the draft. In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, of all places, the share of conscientious objectors was, at 85 percent, particularly high.

"Wars Are Not Over Once the Guns Fall Silent"

Twenty-five years after the concert at Zetra, the crowdsourcing project "Zetra - Days of Hope" is looking for people who attended the concert on July 28, 1991 to let them tell their story. The project aims to document how they have fared since. It also hopes to find an answer to the question: How does a war nobody wants still break out?


"The battles, the atrocities and the massacres, like in Srebrenica, are commemorated regularly, and rightly so," says journalist Danijel Visevic, the initiator of the project. "But the enormous anti-war movement is hardly ever talked about. We would like to change that."

Visevic himself grew up in Germany, but a large part of his family lives in Bosnia and Croatia. Six of his cousins and five of his uncles fought on the front lines. Today, some of them and some of their families are deeply traumatized. "Wars are not over once the guns fall silent," Visevic says. "Their fallout has an impact on people and their children for decades."

Send Us Your Personal Story from the Balkans

Together with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the transmedia storytelling specialists at Chapter One and local media partners in the Balkans, "Zetra - Days of Hope" is asking everyone who attended the concert in 1991 to tell their personal story. You will be able to submit your story - be it in written form or by uploading a mobile phone photo or video - until July 28, 2016, the 25th anniversary of the concert.

  • Did you attend the "Yutel-za-mir" ("Yutel-for-peace") concert in Sarajevo on July 28, 1991? Then go to the website www.zetraproject.com and tell us your story. You can also find us on Facebook. The German version can be found here and the Serbo-Croatian here.

The journalists involved will edit and prepare the individual vignettes and publish them on the website. The aim is to create a kaleidoscope of written pieces, photos, and videos as well as a virtual space where, a quarter of a century later, people can meet up once again. Every week until July 28, SPIEGEL ONLINE will be sharing the story of a person who was in the audience in 1991. Read the story of the concert's initiator, Milan Trivic, here.

With the multitude of personal stories, we also hope to draw a more differentiated picture of prewar Yugoslavia than exists in many people's imagination today. Twenty-five years ago, Yugoslavia was a multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country with an educated population and a robust civil society. In his book "Origins of a Catastrophe," the former US Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, writes that a country whose population wanted peace was destroyed "top down" by nationalist politicians.

Davor Ebner, now 44, still lives in Sarajevo. He remained a musician throughout the war and thereafter and in 2009, he represented Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Eurovision Song Contest. As he looks back at the anti-war movement, he says that there was nothing it could have done differently. It was powerless. "But we did try. That counts for a whole lot, I think."

This article is part of the project "Expedition BeyondTomorrow"

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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asim_zubcevic 07/05/2016
A worth-while project. Well done.
hchidambaram 07/05/2016
2. Yugoslavia Break up
In the article, you wonder why war broke out when people did not want it. Germany was at the forefront of efforts to break up Yugoslavia in support of Croatia. Even when other allies of Germany such as USA advised against it, Germany pushed for Croatia's separation from the united Yugoslavia. So people may not want war or break up, people may want harmony and co-existence, but scheming outside powers can override the common people.
alexandru_mihailescu 07/07/2016
3. How about Czechoslovakia?
Well, not entirely correct. Czechoslovakia also broke up, and they didn't butcher each other. So, maybe it's also - or mainly?! - the fault of the ethnic groups within Yugoslavia. As bad as it might sound, it was a matter of lack of civilization.
nat marion 07/12/2016
4. reality check
what an idiotic, presumptuous and ignorant comment - comparing Czechoslovakia to ex-Yugoslavia and concluding that it was all down to lack of "civility". the war in ex-Yugoslavia was not started by Germany or CIA and no, it doesn't prove lack of civility on the part of the civilian populations that were swallowed by it. the conflict was orchestrated by a handful of politicians and military cadres that had served them - it was a naked grab for power what powered it. what is difficult to understand , for all of us who were lucky enough never to have been sucked into such a nightmare, are the consequences of the emotional traumas suffered by those who have lost their loved ones. what starts as a butchering mission by the lowest elements in the society spirals out of all control and reason once the bodies pile sky high. to claim that we could never kill, never brutalise in response to being brutalised, never take revenge for rape, torture and killing of our mothers is to lack the most rudimentary understanding of the human psychology. let us hope we will never have to test or own humanity in such a tragic manner.
alis0609 07/14/2016
5. like every war, it was because of profit
War in Yugoslavia started because of profit. It was a rich country with a lot of factories and national goods. After Tito died, and the time was right, a handful of politicians made a deal, divided the country, share the goods and started the war to cover it up, telling people it was because of their freedom, independence etc. They all made a lot of money (and their "offsprings" still do) by privatization, while people lost their jobs, property, and lives. And they still use the same excuse, the same hatred to manipulate us every time they need us to look the other way while they steal. It's the same in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia. Yugoslavia should fall apart. But if there was no greed, they would do it in peace.
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