It was not the typical wish of a beauty queen.
Instead of asking for “world peace” as she was crowned Miss Besieged Sarajevo in 1993, 17-year-old Inela Nogic unfolded a banner that read: “Don’t let them kill us.”
The war-defying pageant reflected the character of the 380,000 people who lived in Sarajevo then, residents trying to continue normal city life despite daily shelling and sniper fire under the almost 4-year-long military siege by Bosnian Serbs that started in 1992.
Now she is a mother of two who lives in The Netherlands and often visits her parents in Sarajevo.
This week, for the first time in two decades, she climbed again on the stage where she once became one of Sarajevo’s most electric symbols of resistance.
“Oh my God, how weird,” she said, covering her face with her hands and trying to hold back the tears.
As if seeing the audience again with her mom in the front row, Nogic recalled the feeling of victory and raised her hands into the air, waving to rows of empty seats.
Last time she was here, she braved shells or snipers just to get to the contest and then again to get home with her crown.
“It was a crazy thing to do during a war. But we tried to live a normal life. It was some kind of a defense mechanism we all had,” Nogic said.
It was already 14 months into the Serb siege of Sarajevo that went on for 44 months – 11,825 days – longer than the World War II siege of St. Petersburg. At the time, Bosnia’s appeals for help resulted only in food packages the U.N. sent along with military observers, who counted the shells and reported on them to the world.
What Sarajevo residents really wanted was an end to the death and destruction, the restoration of electricity, water and heating, a halt to the 330 shells smashing into the city each day. Over 11,500 civilians in what is now the Bosnian capital were killed from April 1992 until March 1996, including some 1,600 children.
Defying the siege, residents organized musicals and film screenings in basements, trying to prove to themselves and the rest of the world that they were “indestructible,” according to the organizers of the bizarre beauty pageant.
So with a sound system blaring “Eve of Destruction,” Nogic and 12 other teenagers – some with shrapnel scars on their slender legs – took to the stage to vie for the title of “Miss Besieged Sarajevo.”
Then young women in bathing suits unfolded the famous banner.
“There were numerous appeals to end this war, we asked for help in all possible ways but nothing worked,” she recalled. “So this was another outcry to draw attention and have someone do something. We just wanted this war to end.”
After she won, Nogic told reporters she had no plans for the future because she “may not even be alive tomorrow.”
Nogic’s magical smile and the famous banner inspired the Irish rock group U2 to create a song devoted to her and her city – “Miss Sarajevo” – which they often performed with opera star Luciano Pavarotti.
At a U2 concert in Sarajevo in 1997, two years after the war ended, frontman Bono led Nogic by the hand to the stage as he sang “Here she comes, heads turn around, here she comes, to take her crown.”
To this day, the image of an endearing 17-year-old unfolding the historic banner is part of almost every video made about besieged Sarajevo.
“Mom made me take part in the contest,” Nogic said, adding that she never expected anything from it. “It took me a long time to realize I became a symbol.”