How did the inhabitants of Sarajevo survive a 3 1/2-year siege from 1992 to 1996? Specifically, how did they deal with water, food, and heating?

Background: In 2018, Sweden sent out a leaflet "If Crises or War Comes" informing the population on how to prepare for such situations, focusing on water, food, heating, and communication. I cannot find the original source, but someone knowledgeable in the matter told me that a government report claimed that the average Swede is self-sufficient for less than one week. My random sampling among friends and neighbors suggests that this number makes sense. I recently saw the BBC documentary "Death of Yugoslavia" and, comparing the self-sufficiency of the average Swede with the duration of Sarajevo's siege, I can't help wonder.

From the BBC documentary, I understood that the city had no electricity, no gas, and had all roads cut off. No electricity likely means that the water pumps were off-line. Did people take water from nearly rivers? What about in winter?

Roads cut off likely means that supermarkets were empty. How did they get food when today's cities are so reliant on transportation? I am tempted to think it is impractical to store enough food for so many people for such a long time.

No gas likely means no heating. How did people survive the winters?

Apology: I'm sorry if this question comes too early. I understand that the events in this question are very recent and many still suffer the consequences. A weird mixture of admiration, respect, sadness, and grief crosses me while typing these lines.

  • 34
    You can go back a little further and look at the Siege of Leningrad, 1.4 million civilians for 900 days under a much tighter siege.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 21:18
  • 2
    Leningrad was not completely blocked. There was one supply line functioning. It was called "road of life"
    – talex
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 3:34
  • @talex Though it was only functional in winter when the lake was frozen, that's the idea. A siege of a city that large is rarely complete.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 18:20
  • 1
    It was also functioning in summer. It only stops when ice cover is to heavy for boats, but not strong enough to cary a truck.
    – talex
    Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 18:24
  • 10
    @Schwern Yes, but Leningrad is hardly a good example of people surviving a siege, given almost half the population died. Commented Jun 30, 2018 at 21:05

2 Answers 2


A combination of the UN, NATO, the Red Cross, Sarajevo International Airport, the Sarajevo Tunnel, smugglers, and the Bosnian Army saved Sarajevo. While the siege officially ended in Feb 1996, it was loosened by steps, and supplies were always flowing in.

Early on, the UN Security Council made a number of resolutions to protect the civilians of Yugoslavia and demand humanitarian aid be allowed through, particularly to Sarajevo Airport. Resolution 752 in May 1992 called for negotiations and cooperation with the UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR. Resolution 757 designated Sarajevo Airport as a UN security zone. Resolution 758 authorized military action to ensure the aid got through with 770 reiterating. Resolution 776 in Sept 1992 increased the scope of UNPROFOR's mission to include organizing and protecting aid convoys and gave permission for them to defend themselves.

In June 1992, the Bosnian Serbs complied and handed over Sarajevo Airport to the UN. 13,000 flights delivered 160,000 tons of humanitarian aid.

In addition to official international aid, smugglers were active bringing supplies in through Serbian lines. Bosnian defenders raided Serbian positions for supplies.

Finally, in the spring of 1993, the Bosnian Army dug a tunnel linking the neighborhoods of Dobrinja and Butmir, one inside the siege and one outside, allowing humanitarian and war supplies to flow in. This bypassed both the besieging forces and the UN arms embargo that affected all parties, including the poorly armed Bosnian Army. Wagons could carry up to 400 kg of supplies at a time. On an average day, thousands of civilians and soldiers and dozens of tons of supplies passed through the tunnel for a total of 2 to 3 million trips.

While the siege was not fully lifted until 1996, a string of on again / off again UN-negotiated cease fires around Sarajevo and the threat of NATO airstrikes on February 9th, 1994, helped loosen it considerably. Under Resolution 836 the Security Council demanded the Bosnian Serbs remove all heavy weapons from a 20 km exclusion zone around the city or be destroyed. February 12th, 1994, was the first day with no casualties since the siege began. On February 17th, the Serbs began to comply.

1994 and 1995 saw an escalating series of Serbian violations of UN safe areas and humanitarian convoys, with increasing NATO retaliatory air strikes. In September 1995, NATO began Operation Deliberate Force, systematically bombing Serbian heavy weapons and positions which threatened UN safe areas. Afterwards, the Bosnian Serbs were more compliant with UN humanitarian aid.

In the fall of 1995, the Bosnians and Croats went on the offensive and further loosened the siege allowing power, water, and heat to be restored. In Oct 1995, an uneasy ceasefire went into effect under the Dayton Accords. In Dec 1995, 60,000 IFOR (Implementation Force) troops replaced UNPROFOR to implement the accords, enforce the peace, and help establish a Bosnian government.

The siege was officially declared over on February 29th, 1996, when the Bosnian Serbs withdrew from their positions around the city.


Because it was not a complete siege thanks to the Sarajevo Tunnel and Operation Irma. The first one was a tunnel that passed below the siege, and the second one was a security zone protected by the United Nations around the airport of Sarajevo. These connections to the external world allowed people to be evacuated, and also supplies were sent to the city through them. Besides, like many sieges, a black market between both sides allowed the transfer of supplies.

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