Uncovering Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope

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Photos by Mike Crisolago

Here, inside the secret tunnel that proved Sarajevo’s salvation.

“In Sarajevo, we have a war every 50 years or so,” our driver glibly notes while navigating the rain-slicked road from Sarajevo International Airport to our hotel in the heart of the city’s old town. It’s a remark – spoken with such docile matter-of-factness, in the way others may comment on the weather – that reverberates within the tiny car as we pass a row of apartment buildings riddled with bullet holes. The driver gestures to them and then, on the next block, to the row of orphanages that follow, a solemn punctuation mark to illustrate his point.

A Sarajevo Rose

Like a macabre game of connect the dots one could follow the bullet holes directly into the heart of Sarajevo’s old city to our hotel, where I was a guest of Insight Vacations, kicking off a seven-day journey along the Dalmatian Coast that began in Sarajevo and wrapped up in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

To be clear, for a city that’s been razed and rebuilt multiple times in the last century, the fact that Sarajevo retains the beauty and mystique of bygone days, when artists and bohemians caroused in the hidden nooks and winding streets of the ancient marketplace, stands as a testament to both the magic of this city and the perseverance of its people. It’s beautiful, it’s safe and the locals truly appreciate the support – both moral and financial – that tourism brings.

That said, our driver’s evaluation of Sarajevo’s war-torn history proved relatively accurate. In the early 1900s Austro-Hungarian occupiers triggered the Bosnian Crisis when they annexed the country. June of 1914 saw the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, sparking the First World War. The Second World War brought Allied bombardment as the Nazis scurried with their stolen riches through a network of underground tunnels (which still exist). But it’s the ghosts of the most recent crisis – the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s – during which Serbian forces isolated the city and pummelled it with bomb and missile fire, that still haunt Sarajevo’s pockmarked walls.

“It’s very difficult to accept, sometimes, what happened,” Dino, our local guide, admitted when discussing the conflict. “It’s simply war. And the moment people accept what happens in war, you move on.”

A declaration of the tunnel as “The place that ended the 20th century”

Reminders of the conflict linger everywhere, from the roadway dubbed “Sniper Alley” to the Romeo and Juliet Bridge, named for the young lovers, a Bosnian and a Serb, who were shot while crossing it, to the plentiful Sarajevo Roses – the lasting imprints of mortar shells made in the streets of the city, painted red. Contrary to the outward impression these landmarks suggest, Sarajevo itself is a living, breathing monument not to death and destruction, but to the triumph of life against unimaginable odds.

And there is no more important, and symbolic, reminder of the unwavering will of the Bosnian people to survive than what rests below a non-descript farmhouse in the city’s Butmir neighbourhood…

The home where the digging of the Tunnel of Hope began.It’s beneath this home, owned by a local man named Bajro Kolar, that the Bosnian army and citizens dug the approximately 840 metre-long Sarajevo Tunnel – also known as the Tunnel of Hope – by hand over four months beginning in March, 1993.

The tunnel is less than five feet tall, so visitors must crouch through it.

At the time, Serbian forces had enveloped Sarajevo, blocking all roads out of the city while systematically attacking its starving citizens from the surrounding mountainside. On the verge of utter destruction, the tunnel proved Sarajevo’s last hope. Workers crouched and dug the tunnel in shifts, around the clock, beneath the Serbian forces and the airport, from both the Butmir end and the UN-held neighbourhood of Dobrinja, until the two sides met in the middle. The tunnel, which stands less than five feet high and about a meter wide, was reinforced with wood and steel and equipped with cables to supply electricity and a pipeline for oil, plus a telephone line into the besieged city. It also provided a means of importing food, medical supplies, military personnel, weapons and other essentials, as well as allowing others to escape.

Kolar’s home, itself adorned with bullet holes, stands today as a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the tunnel. The entrance and a short section of the tunnel are open to tourists, though the claustrophobic set may want to skip that part of the tour and walk around the grounds, visit a screening room for a short documentary about the history of the Bosnian War, or take in the picturesque, mountain-lined landscape.

Our visit to the Sarajevo Tunnel also reinforced one, indisputable post-war fact: that the scars left on the hearts and minds of the survivors are just as deep and, in some cases, just as permanent as a Sarajevo Rose.

A visitor watches a show about the conflict while surrounded by military garb and supplies.

But it was here, before the tunnel that ultimately brought Sarajevo its freedom, that Dino offered perhaps the most honest and enlightened insight into the souls of the survivors on both sides.

“We don’t love each other because we cannot love each other. But we get along,” he says. “In order to live you really have to respect each other’s differences…The important thing is for people to respect themselves. And if they respect themselves, life can go on.”

Insight Vacations offers unique Bosnian exclusives and authentic dining experiences. For more information, visit www.insightvacations.com/ca or call 1-866-747-8120.