There was an awkward silence as we drove towards Sarajevo airport. My guide was in his 30s but he would have been young enough to remember the war. It was his job to drive here everyday, taking tourists like me to the once hidden tunnel, the lifeline that ran underneath the airport during the Siege of Sarajevo. While discussing history can fall into a musty, academic territory, in Sarajevo it’s a living memory.
Echoes linger round every corner. White tombstones populate the hillsides surrounding the city, bullet holes scar its houses and even parts of the suburbs lie in ruin. Red marks lie around the city centre, called “Sarajevo Roses”, dents from shells filled in with red resin commemorating someone who died. But even more poignant are the echoes of the horrors that can be seen behind the eyes of any adult local.
We tried to make small talk. My guide rattled off a list of facts about the Yugoslav War and the construction of the tunnel. Yet, the feeling was as cold as the weather outside.
Around the airport, everything felt desolate in the grey afternoon as the clouds began to thicken. A few houses lined the road which looked like something out of a countryside, and the museum presented itself as a simple residential house etched with bullet holes.
“This was where the exit of the tunnel was,” he told me, “Beyond those hills it was already the territory belonging to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where our allies were, but the city was completely surrounded by Serbs. Nothing could come in and out.”
I got out of the car and we made our way to the entrance.
“We call this the ‘Tunnel of Life'”, my guide added, “If it weren’t for this tunnel, supplies couldn’t come into the city. It was used to bring in food, weapons, sometimes even water, and other supplies that were needed. The airport was controlled by the United Nations at the time, so it was a neutral zone, so Bosnian loyalists built the tunnel underneath it. Without this tunnel – Sarajevo would have fallen.”
While the tunnel spanned 800 metres from this small house, running under the airport to the housing estate on the edge of the city, only a 20m section of the tunnel can be visited. Today, it’s cleaned up and tourist friendly. Turning down the steps, one has to crouch through the 1.5 metre high passer, taking care not to trip over rail tracks that were used to ferry supplies in and out. Crawling through the 20 metres was already uncomfortable, but it is hard enough to imagine what it must have been like when the tunnel was filled with mud and water; transporting injured soldiers or kilos of supplies while the whole city shook under the shelling.
“They dug the tunnel out by hand,” my guide told me, “It was a mission from both sides. The workers were paid in cigarettes. The underground water came up from below. It was waist high and needed to be emptied by the bucket. The old lady who lived in this house would wait for people at the exit with a cup of tea.”
The museum offered an impression of tunnel, not only in those 20 metres but items displayed in the museum testify as relics to the kind of items that were brought in and out of the city, along with papers, documents and photographs.
While the war is over, the museum is a relic of a war that is still remembered first hand in our lifetime, and stands as a testimony to the sheer human spirit of survival. Twenty years on, Sarajevo is a city that celebrates life, but the siege and war of the mid-90s will never be forgotten.
Donji Kotorac 34
Bosnia and Herzegovina