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Sarajevo’s Tunnel Museum


‘I was a young man when the war broke out,’ says Edis Kolar as we stand out in the rear garden of his house on the outskirts of Sarajevo. He is a tall, well-built and friendly-looking fellow with wide shoulders and a dark complexion; a pair of aviator sunglasses hangs from the round neck of his plain green t-shirt. I feel as though he has many more stories to tell. The weather is intensely humid and flies buzz around intermittently. A number of people stand in the wild garden fringed with a tired looking chicken wire fence, which fights off the attempts from clumps of tall grass to spread out into the flat surrounding countryside.

Edis’ home is a unique place since it doubles as Sarajevo’s ‘Tunnel Museum,’ paying homage to the ‘tunnel that saved the city’ during the years of conflict from 1992-95. During its lifespan the tunnel was used to secrete people and commodities in and out of the surrounded city and it stretched for a length of 800 metres into Bosnian free territory on the other side of what is now Sarajevo International Airport. The entrance to the tunnel starts at the front of Edis’ garden.

Looking out to the north across fields of wild flowers populated only with the odd goat I can see the airport, just. It puts into perspective how much of a Herculean effort it was for those who built the tunnel by hand while the whole surrounding area was under siege.

After entering the house I sit agog for twenty five minutes after Edis leaves me to watch a no holds barred video documenting the siege of the city and the crucial role that the tunnel played in the conflict. I see unfortunate souls hanging from balconies as their homes rage with flames after mortar attacks (we don’t know what happens to them next), motorists and electric trams under sniper fire and soldiers of the Bosnian Army heaving their dead out of the battle zone. The bold and striking telecommunications building atop the lower reaches of the Dinaric Alps is on fire and the 1984 Winter Olympics complex is largely ruined because of the shelling. In short, the city is ablaze and as the film ends, I am, for want of a better word, feeling rather shell-shocked.

The rest of the museum, which takes up most of the rooms in the ground floor of the Kolars’ small home is more sedate in comparison. Framed photographs of soldiers and civilians hang off centre on the whitewashed walls that feel rough to the touch. There are a few old wooden chairs with faded varnish and glass cabinets displaying shovels, spades and pickaxes used in the tunnel’s construction, as well as soldiers’ uniforms, empty shell casings, camouflage, photographs and maps of the conflict. There are also a small number of ready looking mortars and other ammunitions, which I can only hope have been defused and I listen awkwardly as a young Bosnian man gives a broken talk in English about the war, and of course, the tunnel.

Outside again and blinking in the strong sunlight, I pause underneath the house’s wooden annex which contains the entrance to the single 25 metre stretch of tunnel that remains open to the public. An earthy, raw smell like decomposing leaves fills my nostrils as I tentatively negotiate the steep and shaky wooden steps that lead downwards. The tunnel is completely dark and I hear an American voice from above my head challenging me to put on the 25 kilogram canvas backpack that lies slumped against the wall near my feet.

Not being one to pass in such a test I do so. Heaving it onto my shoulders, I realise that 25 kilos is a lot heavier than I thought and I have to bend right down and shuffle along in the pitch black to avoid the log beams above and to the side of me along the tunnel’s length. During the siege the passage would sometimes flood and people had to wade through waist-high in stagnant water. Thankfully today is dry and my sturdy boots scuffle and slip on the gritty ground surface, but I still can’t see a thing.

Only a metre and a half tall and narrower than a child’s arm span, getting through the tunnel like this is not a pleasant experience and on more than one occasion I whack my head against one of the wooden beams. I feel like a tortoise trying to get through a cat-flap and when I eventually get to the end I feel quite knackered and a little bruised. The young man who gave the talk earlier explains that during the siege, elderly women would carry a backpack of the same weight the full 800 metre distance, whilst healthy young males were expected to carry two; one on the back and one on the front.

We decide to pass on the solemn little gift stall that sells stickers, badges, wall charts, maps and photographs of the city, which is manned by an elderly lady who looks not in the least interested in her job. Instead it’s back out into the garden again where more Bosnians are gathered, some in groups talking and pointing out various non specific points on the horizon, others smoking and a few chattering on mobile phones.

Although we have seen most of what there is to be seen, we linger a little while longer taking in the magnificent views of the Alps, which envelop the Sarajevo Valley. With most of the top half of the Kolars’ house riddled with bullet marks and almost devoid of the white paint rendering which must have given it a certain presence in past years, it stands as its own witness to the conflict. The front line of fighting was a mere stone’s throw from the building, which makes the fact that the tunnel was never discovered by the Serbian forces even more of an astonishing feat.

Edis returns from inside the building and approaches us with a half smile, and sensing that we have seen everything, offers to call us a taxi to get back to the city. Before he goes I ask him whether he fought in the war.

‘I was seventeen when the war happened, I fought for four years and was wounded protecting this tunnel. Hopefully we can turn it into a real museum one day but this will take a lot of money.’ There is a Flanders-esque quality to the former front line, restful with nothing now except yellow fields and empty land. It is people like Edis who make sure that the sacrifices are not forgotten.

‘You know,’ he says, just before we leave, pointing at the surrounding mountains, ‘there is lots of good ski here in the winter. Don’t forget, this is an Olympic city as well.’

Factbox:

Sarajevo’s Tunnel Museum is open daily from 9am – 7pm in summer and 9am – 5pm in winter. Entrance fee 5 KM (roughly £2). The tunnel is situated 12km to the northeast of the city and is best reached by taxi, the price of which will depend on negotiation with the driver but should not cost more than 10 Euros each way.

There are many companies that fly into Sarajevo International Airport, but you will need to change at least once if departing from the UK. See individual operators for further details, or visit www.sarajevo-airport.ba for more information. Sarajevo is also easily reached for backpackers with rail links to Zagreb and Belgrade and regular long distance coach services link it to almost every major town in the former Yugoslavia including Split and Dubrovnik. See www.sarajevo-tourism.com for more information.

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