by Rory Stewart
Over the past four months I have had the honor of experiencing life, politics and culture in two of the 20th century’s iconic cities. I use the word iconic especially, as the suggestion of these two cities raises particular images in the mind of the reader; Sarajevo, whose bullet marred streets bare testament to a Thousand Days of merciless bombardment; Jerusalem, where ‘religious’ tourism is set against the backdrop of a securitized frontier town, partially segregated between a Palestinian East and a Jewish West. Both of these cities provide excellent case studies to the concept of the ‘modern siege.’
A siege is ultimately an attack on the material and mental will power of the people living in the city. I would like to focus on two aspects and discuss how they existed in Sarajevo and are present within Jerusalem: Firstly, the concept of siege mentality, the feeling of isolation, helplessness and suffocation; Secondly Urbanicide, methodical destruction of buildings and infrastructure deemed crucial to the cultural and spiritual survival of the besieged. Why? Often these buildings are the corporeal manifestation of a society’s cultural and spiritual needs. The aim of urbanicide is to apply pressure on the will of the besieged by creating a situation in which these psychological needs are physically denied.
When walking the streets you are reminded that the city of Sarajevo is no stranger to death: from the drunken, hurried shots of Gavrilo Princip that ended the life of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914; to the shooting of two female peace marchers at the hands of Serb snipers that signaled the start of the One Thousand Day Siege in the early 1990s.
Looking up and viewing the surrounding hills, you really get a feel for just how vulnerable the city is and how exposed you are as a citizen. This intuitive feeling of dread, combined with the first hand stories of some of the people I met, painted a pretty accurate picture of what a modern day siege was like.
To me, this dialogue of a radio transmission between General Mladic and a Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) Colonel, best summaries the actions and intended consequences of the tactics employed against the citizens of Sarajevo: -General Mladic here.
-Don’t panic. What is your name?
- Yes Sir.
- Keep the Presidency and the Assembly building under steady, direct fire and pound slowly in intervals until I give the order to stop.
-Target Muslim neighborhoods - not many Serbs live there.
-Make sure they don't get any sleep down there,
- Shell them till they are on the edge of madness.
- Yes, no problem.
Realistically, I have no idea what the people of the city went through, but it is possible to comprehend how a siege mentality can be created and maintained. A group of men at the hotel helped me to understand and relate to some of their experiences during the siege, one recalled.
“They shot at everything, men, women with children, even the dogs. Sometimes they shot to miss, just to screw with your mind, to let you know that they had you in their sights and had decided to let you live, that feeling that somebody is staring at you from the other end of a rifle, dictating whether you live or die, playing at God, that knowledge breaks you.” His final exclamation coincided with the end of his cigarette, “from Olympic City- to this… is a terrible thing!”
As a Brit whose own Olympics started within less than a month, these words chilled me to the core.
Jerusalem is no stranger to sieges; Roman armies to Crusading Knights, Muslims and Imperial Britain, all of whom threw men against the walls of this City. But the majority of these events occurred centuries ago, then why do I still feel that here in Jerusalem, a society is under siege? For me, it is the Israeli attitude towards the Jerusalemites, primarily methods they use to demographically hinder the advancement of the Palestinian society. The VRS military leader; Ratko Mladic used shelling, here the Israeli authorities use a varied list of tactics, which include but are not limited to:
* House demolitions and the forced expulsion of its occupants.
* The restriction of movement of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jerusalem and visa versa.
* Certain Palestinian neighborhoods and settlements are deemed out of the boundaries of the municipality, whilst Jewish ones are annexed to the Jerusalem Governate.
* The marginalization of the Palestinian economy through manipulation of taxation revenues, planning permits, and the non approval of zoning plans etc.
* East Jerusalemites are not given Israeli passports. They are entitled to a Jordanian passport and until they secure one, must carry separate travel documentation. They do have the right to apply for an Israeli passport, however this can lead to social and bureaucratic problems.
To me this is modern urbanicide, through denying a peoples’ economic, social and spiritual necessities, you reject their existence and you seek their destruction. As a general, Ariel Sharon put this concept in better words than I can. As a prime minister, he promoted this concept better than anyone.
“I know the Arabs. They are not impressed by helicopters and missiles. For them, there is nothing more important than their house. So, under me you will not see a child shot next to his father, it is better to level the entire village with bulldozers, row after row.”
I have been here for two weeks, but I am already drawing my own comparisons. The use of executive/judicial means to instigate demographic ends, was used as a tactic in some of the darkest days of twentieth century Europe. From the ghettos of Poland to the rape camps of Bosnia; the segregation and containment of societies whose only transgression was to exist, resulted in some of the greatest crimes against humanity. I do not wish to see these crimes repeated anywhere, especially here in Israel.