Here’s a cheery game for you, close your eyes and think of war; sure, not the most enjoyable thing to do I shall admit, but there we go. What do you see? I’d wager that you see some sort of overly dramatic ‘Saving Private Ryan’-esque scene, of men valiantly running through hails of bullets before being gunned down on a beach and telling their friend to ‘go, go without me’. War is fought by men with guns after all.
Except war isn’t just corridors of men being gunned down on beaches. Soldiers may be the ones on the front lines, but then to a certain degree that is what they signed up for. War also hits those at home, those left behind, the ordinary folk who aren’t in the eye of the storm but have their existence more than disrupted by the effects. War is lines of people queuing up for bread. War is potatoes for dinner, every single day. War is a beauty contest held in a basement.
Regardless of your opinions and beliefs regarding the key characters involved in the political side of the war, there are certain facts about the Bosnian War that are just that; facts. One such truth is that the Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Beginning on 5 April 1992, the first city in Europe to get an electric tram found itself under siege for a whopping 1,425 days, violent proceedings coming to something approaching a close on 29 February 1996, almost four years later.
It is practically impossible for ordinary life to continue under such circumstances, but this doesn’t mean that ordinary folk don’t try to keep things moving as usual. Such was the thinking behind the 1993 Miss Besieged Sarajevo contest, as 13 young women vied for the crown in front of a crowd of Bosnians, UN officials, foreign media personnel and Holiday Inn staff. Despite the old adage of ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ being as true as ever, there still had to be a winner, and on this day it was 17-year-old Inela Nogić who reigned supreme. When asked what she would do with her year as Miss Sarajevo, Nogić replied ‘I have no plans, I could be dead tomorrow’. The contestants came together to unfurl a banner specially designed for the international press, a banner which read ‘Don’t let them kill us’.
Nogić was born and raised in Sarajevo, a true daughter of the city. Born into a Muslim family, Inela was by all accounts a good student, but as a 16-year-old when the shells began raining down on Sarajevo everything sort of ground to a halt. She had actually been interviewed by foreign media before the pageant, stating that continuing to look good was another form of resistance. No matter how many shells fell, how many people were gunned down by sniper fire or how many historical buildings crumbled under the weight of war, Inela Nogić was still going to look like a million bucks.
She wasn’t entirely enthused at the idea of taking part in a beauty pageant however, and it took the insistence of her mother for her to take part in Miss Besieged Sarajevo 1993. The 13 girls wore combat uniforms and carried guns in an attempt to lampoon the ridiculousness of war (or possibly tap into the fashion of the time), but the stark reality of the violence could be seen in the shrapnel scars that many competitors wore. Inela Nogić was proclaimed the winner, but this wasn’t as important as showing the world that life was going to continue in Sarajevo.
The war may have put a stop to large swathes of normality, but Sarajevo’s cultural life continued apace. Poetry recitals, musicals, gigs, film screenings and all sorts went underground, taking place in basements to avoid sniper fire. Whilst the majority of these were ignored by the international press, the inherent glamour of a Miss Besieged Sarajevo contest was too good to ignore. The journalists present made sure to show the pictures to the world, and the international community woke up somewhat to the horrors of Sarajevo.
Bono and U2 have never met a humanitarian publicity possibility they didn’t like, and this was no different. The song ‘Miss Sarajevo’ was penned, and when the Irish pseudo-rockers became the first Western band to play in Sarajevo following the war Nogić was flown in by the band to make an appearance. By this time she was living in the Netherlands, mother of two and married to a Dutch journalist she had met in Bosnia during the war.
Inela Nogić’s story isn’t unique, but it is important. Where many poets, bands and directors continued to create and perform in Sarajevo without the interest of the world, Nogić and her 12 fellow competitors captured the imagination of the international press and showed that life would continue, regardless of how much death happened to be surrounding it.
An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, for a mere £16.20 plus postage. You can get the magical tome over at our shop, linked here, and the digital version is there too. There are also books about Bosnia, Macedonia and Prague available, blimey.