In “The Burial of the Dead,” the first section of his 1922 poem The Waste Land, American poet T.S. Eliot penned that famous opening line, “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.”
Canadians could relate to Eliot’s poem immediately: only five short years earlier in 1917, we had fought the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. While it ranks as the most important Canadian battle of the First World War and one of the most important in our history, marking the first time all four Canadian divisions fought on the same battlefield, the victory of the Battle of Vimy Ridge between April 9-12, 1917, came at the cost of 10,602 Canadian casualties – 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded.
April would have other cruelties much later in the 20th century – long after “the war to end all wars” ended Nov. 11, 1911 – that should continue to resonate for us as well lest we be condemned to repeat their horrors.
The Siege of Sarajevo, with a population then of 435,000, began 20 years ago last week on April 5, 1992 on the eve of European Community recognition of Bosnia Herzegovina as an independent state from the former Yugoslavia. The population in 1992 was primarily a mix of Muslim Bosniaks, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats. It remains the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Serb forces of the Republika Srpska and the Yugoslav People's Army besieged Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Miljacka River valley for 44 months until Feb. 29, 1996 during the Bosnian War. The siege lasted three times longer than the Siege of Stalingrad and a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad.
The Serbs, whose strategic goal was to create a new Republika Srpska Serbian state, that would include part of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, encircled Sarajevo, which had hosted the Winter Olympics just eight years earlier in 1984, with a siege force of 18,000 stationed in the surrounding hills. From there they bombarded the city with weapons that included artillery, mortars, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine-guns, multiple rocket launchers, rocket-launched aircraft bombs and rifle fire from snipers in high-rise buildings. Reports indicated an average of approximately 329 shells hitting Sarajevo daily during the siege, with a maximum of 3,777 shells falling July 22, 1993.
The United Nations later estimated that 11,541 people were killed in Sarajevo, including more than 1,500 children. An additional 56,000 people were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children.
After 12 years on the run, Serbian leader Dr. Radovan Karadžić, a psychiatrist, was arrested on a Belgrade bus in July 2008 and is currently in custody in the United Nations Detention Unit in Scheveningen in The Hague. He is charged with war crimes and his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is expected to conclude in 2014. Two years and a day after the Siege of Sarajevo began in the Balkan powder keg of Central Europe, which had earlier ignited the First World War with the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb nationalist, the presidents of the African states of Rwanda and Burundi, Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Burundi's Cyprian Ntayamira, were killed April 6, 1994 in a plane crash when their aircraft was brought down by a missile fired near the Rwandan capital of Kigali.
The two presidents were returning from a meeting of east and central African leaders in Tanzania at which they discussed ways to end ethnic violence in Burundi and Rwanda. In the 100 days of violence that followed the shooting down of the plane carrying Habyarimana and Ntayamira more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed – almost 20 per cent of the population – in what would come to be known as the Rwandan Genocide. Most of the dead were the minority Tutsis - and most of those who perpetrated the violence were the majority Hutus.
A Rwandan government inquiry found in January 2010 that Hutu extremists carried out the assassinations and used it as an excuse for the mass killing of Tutsi rivals. Earlier reports blamed the murder of Habyarimana – who was a Hutu – on Tutsi rebels from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), who have dominated the political leadership of the country as part of coalition and national unity governments since July 1994. Now those same Tutsi rebels are in government, their leader Paul Kagame, a Roman Catholic, is president. About half the population of Rwanda is Roman Catholic. Habyarimana was also Roman Catholic. A French judge blamed Kagame and some of his close associates for carrying out the rocket attack.
April can indeed be a cruel month.