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By Barbara Demick
This book is a non-fiction chronicle of life on an urban residential street in Sarajevo, Bosnia during the siege of the city from 1992 to 1996. During the war, the mixed ethnic Bosnians fought against the Serbians for control of Bosnia. Serbs encircled Sarajevo and placed a hodgepodge of artillery in the hills overlooking the city. Demick is a journalist who rented a room in a house on the street periodically during the siege. The book is a straightforward tale of survival under appalling wartime conditions.

This book has a considerable amount of information of interest to preppers. Although it’s unlikely an American city will be besieged by poorly equipped foreign troops using Cold War era surplus gear, it’s possible similar conditions could be created by an extended off-grid experience in a medium sized coastal city that is partially resupplied from overseas.

Takeaways from the book include:

1) The residents of Sarajevo were completely unprepared for the war. Until the week the siege started, most believed the war could be averted and people went about their daily lives oblivious to the coming war. Almost no one had supplies or food stockpiled. When the Serbs moved into the hills around Sarajevo, many people rushed out and stockpiled FROZEN food which of course spoiled when the power was cut.

2) The Muslim controlled government seized firearms from the residents at the start of the war to prevent “terrorism”. The real intent may have been to arm the pathetically out-gunned Bosnian army. Either way, most of the residents lacked firearms during the siege.

3) Power, water and gas were generally unavailable although electricity and natural gas were occasionally available. Essential government offices such as police stations or hospitals had some electricity and people who “knew someone” could run wires from the buildings to their homes to pirate a few kilowatts.

4) Residents rigged up makeshift heaters and stoves and burned anything they could find including furniture and books. In the cold Sarajevian winter, temperatures averaged 40F indoors. Despite the use of unsafe heating methods there is no mention of carbon dioxide poisoning or widespread fires.

5) Hepatitis due to bad water was common although there is no mention of other serious disease outbreaks. Waste disposal wasn’t discussed although the sewer system appears to have been partially functioning even though the water system was mostly down. Residents bathed by pouring water over themselves while standing in a tub and by and large generally maintained hygiene.

6) During the first few weeks of the siege, life continued on more or less normally. When the shelling picked up, government services such as the ambulance service soon became overwhelmed. Despite the conditions, the police force, hospitals and fire department remained in operation throughout the war, although at diminished capacity. Schools functioned intermittently. Government workers were paid in nearly worthless Bosnian dinars but, other than those few able to leave the city, remained on the job.

7) Throughout the siege, foreign aid tricked into the city, so the residents had basic rations, even if sometimes they had to eat Vietnam War era biscuits supplied by the USA. Pre-war Sarajevians were apparently a portly group but their pre-war obesity may have prevented starvation. One resident’s weight reportedly dropped from 300 lb. to 180 lb. Despite the basic food aid, many residents suffered from vitamin deficiencies. Later in the siege, many people began growing vegetables in their yard or purchased chickens for eggs.

8) By and large, the residents of Sarajevo behaved themselves. The author doesn’t record any instances of rioting, looting or other serious criminal behavior although there was a black market. Residents shared small amounts of rations with widows and old people. I’m not sure Americans would behave as well in a similar situation.

9) There was a major baby-boom during the siege. I guess people had nothing else for entertianment.

10) The Bosnian economy collapsed and the Bosnian dinar became nearly worthless. German Deutsche marks became the only accepted currency. For reasons not explained, American dollars were not accepted as currency. Prices for non-aid goods such as cigarettes, candy bars and fresh fruit soared to levels out of reach of the average person. Prices fluctuated wildly depending on aid shipments and the degree to which the Serbs enforced the siege. There was no mention of gold or silver being used as currency even though Sarajevo had a tradition of gold smithing. Cigarettes were used at times as currency.

This book should not be considered a “must read” for preppers. It doesn’t contain detailed instructions for surviving a semi-off grid situation in a major city but it does show that large numbers of completely unprepared people can survive a prolonged SHTF situation with some outside help. I bought my copy for about $10 on Kindle. The book was a finalist for several major literary awards so you can probably borrow a copy from a larger library. It’s worth reading if you have time.

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Preppers could learn a lot by studying the events at Sarajevo. There is another book out by a junior doctor who ended up stranded there who details the struggles to provide medical care alongside the stress of daily life, and how he was able to eventually escape.

I have to admit I do not recall the title right off, even though I have the book here, somewhere.

Thanks for a useful review.

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