Today is the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest artillery siege—even longer than the Siege of Leningrad—and one of the most infamous in modern history. It was brutal, with a poorly equipped citizenry going into old war museums to find working rifles and ammunition.
A Stranger reader in Sarajevo, Amir Telibechirowich, wrote us a few weeks ago to ask whether he could send a series of jokes from the siege era as his form of commemoration. This is from a city where an underground radio station "celebrated" the day that the siege became the longest by playing the Queen song "We Are the Champions." (Another station, he told us, would begin broadcasts with: "'Good evening to all three of you out there who still have batteries for the radio set.' Of course, this was referring to the fact that electricity was gone in most of the city back then.")
Some of these jokes are grim—very grim. But they were the product, Amir says, of people trying to stay sane in extremely grim circumstances. Here is a photo Amir took in his neighborhood during the siege. He explains it in the caption:
"This is in my former neighborhood. I took this one. It shows a surface of one of the apartment-block buildings. Kids call this one a 'Russian chess field,' because Serbian chetniks were sometimes launching rockets and mortar shells randomly to these buildings, and it would look like they were playing a tic tac toe or so-called 'Russian chess.'"
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Jokes From the Siege of Sarajevo
by Amir Telibechirowich
There is a long presence of black humor in the mentality of Sarajevans, and under a siege there was even more inspiration for that. People who survived the siege would say that physical survival was running away from the snipers and mortar shells on daily basis, cutting the trees from the parks for the firewood, getting fresh water, food, and medical supplies, while mental survival was telling jokes about such a situation. Some of these things could be recognized in the post-war movies and books, whose topics are dealing with silly or surrealistic issues in war in Bosnia. Here, we can mention just some of many:
New Type of Curse
I wish you to see your own house on CNN!
It was an ironic “curse” in Sarajevo, because it refers to what CNN was mostly filming in Bosnia back then—explosions, burned buildings, and refugees.
Big One for the Parents, Small One for the Babies
A fierce-looking chetnik, which is the official local term for the most radical Serb paramilitary, is going about his daily business of ethnically cleansing a Bosniak village. He stumbles over a frightened Bosniak child. “Hey, little boy, how are you?” he asks gently. The kid is terrified. “Hey, what are you are afraid of? Is it my long beard?” “No,” the kid stutters quietly. “Is it my gun?” “No.” “Well, what is it then?” asks the curious chetnik. The kid points to a very long knife, hanging from the chetnik’s belt. “Oh that,” chetnik smiles, “Don’t you worry, sweetheart. I have a smaller one for you.”
This one was told by one of the refugees who were expelled from their villages on the mountains, after they settled in the Sarajevo valley. When they got accused of telling “sick” jokes, they just reply saying that it can’t be more sick than reality itself. Many of the mountain villages really had similar experiences with chetniks during the ethnic cleansing.
How to Irritate a Sniper
A young Sarajevan sees his friend swinging back and forth on a child’s swing set in the middle of Sarajevo’s notorious “Snipers’ Alley.” Dodging from cover to cover, risking life and limb, he finally gets close enough to shout: “Hey man, what the hell are you doing? Get out of there!”
His friend shouts back from the swing in reply: “I’m harassing the sniper!”
Snipers Promote Better Health
Two guys were running away from a sniper in a Sarajevo street, exposed to the front line, before the sniper starts shooting again. One of them got tired and wanted to rest and smoke a cigarette. Just when he placed a cigarette into his mouth, sniper shot him and he dropped dead. His colleague turned to him and said: “I was always telling you that smoking is a health hazard!”
This one wasn’t just told among the locals, but one TV director used it in one his films. The joke was inspired by a people who were desperate for the cigarettes in a situation when they couldn't get enough of them.
I Don’t Give a Shit About the Ear!
Cigarettes are in very short supply and a cigarette-loving Bosnian had put his last one behind his ear. He and his neighbor were running over the bridge exposed to a Serbian army on the hill when a sniper opens up on them. Cigarette guy takes a hit which shears off his ear. He stops frantically in the middle of the bridge, looking at the ground. His neighbor yells to him: “Get under cover, idiot! You’ve got two ears!” He replies: “I don’t give a shit about the ear, I am looking for the cigarette!"
They say this one really happened, although nobody can tell for sure. But nobody cares, because everyone in Sarajevo likes it as a joke.
Talking Sports in Balkan Ways
A Croat, a Serb, and a Bosnian talk about sports. The Serb notes: “We are great in the collective sports: basketball, volleyball, water polo…” The Croat says: “We are strong in the individual sports: skiing, karate, tennis…” The Bosnian goes: “We are strong in the sports for the disabled persons.” The Serb and the Croat protest: “What do you mean ‘we’? But who was it who made them disabled in the first place?”
The fact is, the Bosnian national volleyball team is mostly made from the guys who became disabled during the war, being wounded or crippled from Serbian artillery shelling. Or from the Croatian artillery, like in the city of Mostar.
One of the Modern Fairytales Made Under the Siege
Far, far away, in a tiny land, in a tiny village, in a tiny workshop, under not-so-tiny economic sanctions, Slobetto the toymaker has carved a disobedient puppet named Radovanocchio.
Each time the puppet lands him deeper in trouble, Slobetto screams: “I’m gonna make an orthopedic brace out of you!”
This was an allusion to the international economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro, intended to punish Serbia for its support of the radical Bosnian-Serb army. It was, of course, based on famous fairytale about the puppet Pinocchio. “Slobetto” is supposed to be former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and Radovanocchio is war criminal Radovan Karadzic, who is indicted for besieging Sarajevo and for a genocide in other parts of Bosnia. Currently, he is in the middle of the process against him, in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Serbian Army Besiege the US Navy
When Bosnians still held out hope for international military intervention, some locals imagined one Bosnian Serbian militia commander planning to apply “ethnic cleansing” techniques on the United States Navy. “First we sign a cease-fire,” Serbian commander proposes at a strategy meeting. “Then we surround them and give them 48 hours to hand over the weapons. If they refuse, we burn their houses and kill the cattle. Then we can march in and declare it the Serbian Autonomous Sixth Fleet.”
This was related to the fact that back in 1993, the U.S. Sixth Fleet was in the Adriatic Sea, very close to Bosnia. Also, one Serb militia commander of that time answered to some foreign reporter after being asked if he is concerned that Sixth Fleet might intervene against them, saying: “I am not worried. If it’s some dangerous fleet, they should name it the First Fleet instead of the Sixth.”
“I Ain't Poor”
Christiane Amanpour is actually Christiane “I-ain't-poor.”
Christiane, the famous CNN reporter, was reporting live from Sarajevo under siege several times during the war. Somebody spread a story that she earned around two million U.S. dollars for that. It was never officially confirmed, but it's why someone renamed her into “I ain’t poor.”
Story of Panic
“Don't panic, I am Muslim.”
In relation to prejudices, some locals invented this ironic expression, which later appeared on t-shirts after the war. Of course, in this case it refers to Bosnian Muslims as an authentic European Muslim group, with mostly Slavic origin, who paid a price of the bad political relations between the West and the Middle East. It's possible this slogan was taken from the one in the Bronx which goes: “Don't panic, I'm only Hispanic.”
Problematic Gas Delivery
What's the main difference between Sarajevo and Auschwitz? Unlike Sarajevo, Auschwitz at least had a regular gas delivery.
Before anyone says this one is too offending, it's necessary to hear the background: Winters in Sarajevo are usually quite strong. Besieging wasn't only cutting the city off from the rest of the world, then bombing it for three and a half years. It included cutting off the electricity power lines and stopping natural-gas delivery to the city. Then, back in 1993, some BBC reporter stated that Sarajevo has been turned into the biggest concentration camp in Europe, so some locals took it as inspiration for this bitter joke.
Get on my Back
A Bosnian, a Serb and a Croat got drunk in Saudi Arabia. Some locals report them to the police, so they got arrested. “Because you are foreigners and didn’t know the laws, you will not be severely punished,” proclaims a Saudi judge. “Each one of you will get a beating consisting of 50 lashes on the back, but each will also be granted one wish with respect to the beating—but the Bosnian gets two.” The Croat says: “Before you start, I’d like you to tie a pillow to my back.” After five lashes, the pillow hits the ground and the lashes continue. The Serb says: “Before you start, I’d like you to tie two pillows to my back.” After ten lashes, both pillows fall off and the lashes continue. The Bosnian says: “First, I’d like 100 hits instead of 50.” Saudis were quiet a little, but decided to wait for his second wish. “Second,” the Bosnian says, “please tie the Serb tightly to my back.”
This joke appeared sometime at the end of the war, in 1995. Some international organization wanted to help local pilgrims who wanted to go Mecca for a hajj. However, a certain percent of Bosnian Muslims like to drink. Knowing it wouldn’t be appreciated in the Saudi Arabia, they probably invented this kind of joke, so they can somehow connect it to the situation in Bosnia.
Being Gay in the Balkans
Son says: “Dad, I think I have a crush.” Dad says: “That’s great my son! On whom?” Son says: “On Jovan.” “But,” daddy was shocked, “son, he is a Serb!”
All Balkan societies and populations are known as conservative when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. But this joke was allegedly made in the front lines around the surrounded city, after it was discovered that some Bosniak soldier was “too friendly” with a Serb soldier during a ceasefire. The name “Jovan” from the joke is used as a typical Serb name. The situation in the joke was directed to prejudices toward ethnicities in this case, rather than traditional Balkan homophobia.
Why Digging the Nose Is Unhealthy
A Bosnian pedestrian was killed when a sniper shot him directly into his finger, says a police report. A journalist asked a police how could he die from bullet in his finger. “Well," the policeman said, "his finger was in his nose the moment he got shot.”
It was one of those jokes possibly made by a few local junkies of that time, while they were finishing their last hashish.
This Is Post Office, You Idiot!
To finish, we can remember an early, legendary graffiti written on the wall of the old post-office building in Sarajevo, just a couple of months before the siege and war. An unknown hooligan wrote with spray-paint: “This is Serbia!” A few weeks after that, someone replied with answering graffiti, below the first one: “This is post office, you idiot!”
By May of 1992, the Serbian army had burnt this post office to the ground.
Amir Telibechirowich is a journalist, researcher, and tour guide in the city of Sarajevo. You can hear him interviewed by a guidebook writer for the Rick Steves series here.