Secret tunnels, lost lovers and one of the longest sieges in modern day history, learning all about Sarajevo under siege wrecked my head in terms of trying to understand the pain and suffering inflicted upon the people of Bosnia during the early 90’s.

From April 6th 1992 to February 29th 1996 the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was an all out assault of shelling and mortar fire at the hands of the Army of Republika Srpska. The Serb forces wanted Bosnia, they wanted to Sarajevo and it looked for a long time like they might well get what they wanted.  They surrounded the city, cut supplies and forced the Bosnian people to live a life of danger and fear.  The survival of Sarajevo, and to an extent Bosnia, owes a lot to the UN, an airport, and a secret tunnel.  During my week in Bosnia at the start of the year, I was able to visit said secret tunnel and learn all about the role it played in the siege of Sarajevo.

What led to Sarajevo under siege?

So a lot happened in the build up to the siege of Sarajevo.  If you don’t know your history, and to be fair I didn’t know as much as a I thought I did until visiting the city last month, here’s a little bit of background info which might help you understand more as to why parts of the globe who were once neighbours and part of the same country, found themselves fighting one another in the Bosnian capital.

  • May 4th 1980 – the popular Yogoslavian president was Josip Broz Tito passes away.
  • A Presidency of 9 members assumes control of Yogoslavia after Tito.  One member from each republic (Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro), two from each /autonomous provinces –  (Kosovo and Vojvodina), plus one other.
  • 1980’s – Kosovo Albanians started to demand that their autonomous province be granted the status of a constituent republic, starting with the 1981 protests in Kosovo.
  • Serbia viewed Kosovo becoming a republic as a disaster.
  • 1987 – Serbian communist official Slobodan Milošević was sent to bring calm to an ethnically-driven protest by Serbs.   He began a campaign against the ruling communist elite of Serbia, demanding reductions in the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina. These actions made him popular among Serbs and aided his rise to power within Serbia.
  • Milošević and his allies took on an aggressive nationalist agenda of reviving Serbia within Yugoslavia, promising reforms and protection of all Serbs.
  • Yogoslavia first started to break up in 1991 amid rife nationalism, forigen debt, unemployment and inflation. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence first.
  • 1992 and Macedonia declares independence in January, closely followed by Bosnia in April. Being the most ethnically diverse of the former republics (Muslim Bosniaks (44%), Orthodox Serbs (31%) and Catholic Croats (17%), Bosnia erupts into war.
  • Bosnian Serbs, supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), mobilized their forces inside Bosnia and Herzegovina with the aim of destroying it and forming the Serbian state of Republika Srpska.
  • On April 6, 1992, Serb militants opened fire on thousands of peace demonstrators in Sarajevo, killing at least five and wounding 30. This began a siege that has been termed “the worst in Europe since the end of World War II”

Driving along the front line to the Airport

My tour for the day was taken with Samra from Insider.  Having stumbled across the Insider free tour of Sarajevo the previous evening and fully enjoying myself, it was an easy decision to part with a mere 30Mk (15EUR) for the 2.5 hour tunnel tour the next day.

Samra was a local, a young lady who grew up in Sarajevo during the siege.  For the duration of the 45 minute drive from the Insider office to the tunnel museum, she reeled off story after horrifying story from her childhood.  Stories which involved living in a basement along with the entire population of her building for days at a time.  How windows would come crashing in at any minute as a result of a nearby mortar explosions, and that cardboard would be used to plug the hole.  Naturally cardboard did not keep out the cold so well, and during the winter months when temperatures plummet towards -15, the effects were heavily felt.  A nice warm bath might have stifled the cold somewhat, but Samra also explained that water was a big issue, and that warm water, and baths, were like gold dust.  She told of how she would back-breakingly carry canister after canister of water up the stairs of her building as a youngster, providing essential water to those who needed it and were unable to carry the load themselves.  This was clearly no ordinary childhood, it was full of danger and completely lacking in the freedoms all children should have.  Even at such a young age, Samra was already playing the part of heroine, acting and behaving in a way that defied her small years.

As we continued the drive west out of the city and towards the airport, our education into the way of life during the siege continued as Samra pointed out the famous yellow exterior of the Holiday Inn.  The unique looking hotel was purposely built in time for the 1984 winter Olympics and was once ‘the’ place to stay and be seen in Sarajevo.  Those trends changed somewhat once the fighting broke out, but thats not to say that the hotel didn’t still house many many guests.  From 6th April 1992 onward, the Holiday Inn became the surrogate home for news crews from around the world as they reported on the events taking place within Sarajevo.  BBC correspondent, Martin Bell, described the Holiday Inn during the siege as “ground zero”.  “From there,” he said, “you didn’t go out to the war, the war came in to you.  And the war did come to the building, fore it was located on the most dangerous street within the city at the time, ‘Snip Alley’.

Romeo and Juliet

Type ‘Sniper Alley’ into any search engine and you won’t need to scroll far down the result page to unearth the tragic story of Sarajevo’s very own Romeo and Juliet.

Such were the dangers of Sniper Alley, a stretch of road which connected the he industrial part of the city in the west, to the Old Town’s cultural and historic sites in the east, that those who risked life and limb in moving around the city would often leave signs for those following them, warning them of sniper positions.  Waiting for UN vehicles and walking under their cover was deemed one of the safer methods of moving along Sniper Alley, but it was by no means 100% safe, According to data gathered in 1995, the snipers wounded 1,030 people and killed 225 – 60 of whom were children.  Literally no one was safe in walking or attempting to cross the street.  Serb snipers that lined the hills surrounding the city and saw anyone who dared venture out onto the street as fair game.

He was Boško Brkić, a 25 year old Serb, she was Admira Ismić, also 25 but a Bosniak.  They were in love and once had Sarajevo became unlivable, they had made the decision to flee to city in search of a better life together.  Knowing people within both military camps, an agreement of sorts was put into place allowing the couple safe passage across the front line, with both sides agreeing not to fire upon the couple.  Their crossing was set for 5pm on May 19th 1993, but when the time came, no crossing was made, the lovers were gunned down by sniper fire whilst trying to cross the Vrbanja bridge to the Serb-occupied territory of Grbavica.

The image of their bodies, entwined in one another as they left this earth together is a thing of both beauty and horror.  Horror because of the way they lost their lives, Boško being shot first and killed almost instantly as he first set foot on the bridge. A second shot ringing out moments later took Admira’s life, but not before she was able to crawl over to the man she loved and spend her last few moments in his arms.  That is beautiful, but in the most tragic of circumstances.

The photo of the two in each others arms, taken by American photojournalist Mark H. Milstein, went what we would now probably refer to as viral, appearing on countless media networks, and highlighting just how incredibly dangerous and ruthless the siege had become.  As the world looked on, the couples bodies lay in the same spot for 8 days, no one daring to retrieve them OR take responsibility for the shootings.

Sarajevo Airport

Sarajevo airport played a huge role in helping the city survive the siege.  At the beginning of the Bosnian war the airport was put under control of Yugoslav federal army (JNA). After the JNA left, the airport was for a while under control of Bosnian Serb forces, but in mid 1992 they handed over the airport to the UN to use it for humanitarian purposes.  Once under the control of the UN (so that they could provide aid to BOTH sides), it remained the only gap in the Serb forces line, which otherwise encompassed the rest of Sarajevo.

Sarajevo siege

The airport re-opened to civilian air traffic on August 16, 1996 and has since been renovated and slowly returned to its former glory.

The Tunnel Museum

Pulling up in our mini van, the area on the opposite side of the runway to the terminal buildings looked fairly non descriptive.  There were both old and new Bosnian flags flying outside of THE house that hid the tunnel during the siege, but little more decoration than that, save a scattering of bullet holes in the side of that same house.

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Our tour inside the museum started with a 20 minute video of siege footage.  Sat on old ammunition crates, we took in the some of the footage below …

Having watched the footage and seen just a just a minute snippet of what took place on the streets of the city during the siege, and what efforts went into building the tunnel of hope which saved so many lives, it was on with the tour and into the exhibition section.  Here we looked through old photographs, notices of missing persons and lists of the deceased.  Samra showed us the difference in weapons used by the two sides, and how inadequately supplied the Bosnian forces were in comparison to the surrounding Seb forces.

Samra also took us through the rations and supplies that her and her family received from the UN.  Between 3 July 1992 and 9 January 1996, the UN coordinated the longest-running humanitarian airlift in history.  In total, an incredible 160,000 tonnes of food, medicines and other goods were delivered to Sarajevo.  Those quantities meant that some 12,000 flights came into and out of the airport, and this large number of flights also allowed for more than 1,100 civilians in need of urgent medical care to leave the city. It was an incredible effort by all 20 countries involved in the airlift, but as told by Samra who lived to see and receive some of the care packages delivered by the UN, not all was usable.  Samra explained that some of the food and medicine they received was dated and originally planned for use during the Vietnam war, or even as far back as WWII.  That’s not a slur on the current UN set up, they do a fantastic job, and no doubt did a lot to help the Bosnian people during the siege also, but Samra was there, she lived through the siege, eventually escaping to Croatia via the tunnel, but only after having been supplied with some aid that was of little use.

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Moving outside into a secondary exhibition section, it was now time to get a bit physical.  A primary use of the tunnel was to transport aid, rations and weaponry into and out of the city.  Of course, someone would need to carry all of these items through the tunnel though, and that responsibility fell not only to the male parties travelling the 800m from one side of the airport runway to the other.  Women and young girls were also made to carry their share of goods through the tunnel, and most were said to be given bags/sacks weighing in excess of 30kg to transport (Men carried 50-60kg).  No easy task, especially when unable to stand up straight whilst walking the tunnel, such was the height of the escape route from the city.  Our group each tried walking just 10 or so metres with a 30kg bag on our backs, it wasn’t easy.

All this newly learned information was weighing pretty heavy at this point (no pun intended).  To realise that all this violence and bloodshed took place not all that long ago, whilst I was just a wee nipper in primary school, running around a playground and learning my times tables, the things Samra should also have been doing, was pretty hard to take in.  Making two new friends made outside helped take the edge off the day a little though :)

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Walking The Tunnel

So I didn’t walk the whole tunnel, that is now impossible, but not being the biggest fan of small spaces I’m not sure I’d like to walk the entire 800m anyway.  I was able to walk a specific 25 metre section of the tunnel however, and gain a small sense of incredible bravery, perseverance and ingenuity that went into the building of such a structure.

The building of the tunnel began in secret on 1 March 1993.  Nedzad Brankovic, a Bosnian civil engineer, created the plans for the tunnel’s costruction.  It was constructed at an average height of 1.5 meters and average width of 1 meter.  In total some 2,800 square metres of soil was removed from beneath the airports runway whilst the tunnel was constructed.

The construction took time though, owing to a lack of skilled manpower, tools, and material to complete the task. Consequently, the tunnel was dug around the clock by hand, with a shovel and pick, and wheelbarrow.  Diggers would work in 8-hour shifts digging from opposite ends, and would be paid for their efforts in cigarettes rathan than money. Cigarettes went on to become the most common form of currency during the siege.

The tunnel was completed on 30 June 1993 when the two tunnels met in the middle (at the second attempt, the first attempt saw the two tunnels bypass one another). Use of the tunnel began the following day on 1 July 1993 and from that point onward between 3000 and 4000 Bosniak and UN soldiers (as well as civilians) and 30 tons of various goods  are said to have passed through the tunnel each day.  One of those passing through the tunnel at least once was Alija Izetbegović, the first President of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was carried through the tunnel on a chair called the “President’s Chair” and so never actually laid foot in the tunnel.

The tunnel had a few problems throughout the course of its life, the main one being excess underground water.  That water had to be bailed out by hand.  But even with excess water in the tunnel, over time electricity cables and an oil pipe were also laid through the tunnel.

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

As per the above photo, whilst the Serb forces never knew the exact location of the tunnel entrances, they did come mightily close to finding it with a mortar shell.  The representative shell in the picture below shows where an actual mortar landed during the siege.

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Sarajevo tunnel of hope

Much like with my visits to Auchwitz in Poland, and the S21 museum in Cambodia, I’m not entirely sure that I can say I enjoyed my Sarajevo tunnel museum experience.  It was both educational and interesting, but a hard subject to gain any enjoyment from naturally.  Those 800 metres of tunnel, of hope, eventually helped  bring the siege to an end to the siege.  The Bosnian government officially declaring its  end on Feb 29th 1996, some 3 years, 10 months, 3 weeks and 3 days after it had first begun, and only after an estimated that 12,000+ people lost their lives and 50,00+ injuries, mostly civilians.

Holiday Inn Photo Credit:  Jennifer Boyer (Creative Commons attribution licence)

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Sarajevo Under Siege, the secret tunnel to freedom