Advantages An important piece of recent history, interesting, enlightening
Disadvantages Not a great deal to see so for the really interested only
|Is it worth visiting?|
In the mid 1990s I watched television news bulletins transfixed at the pictures coming from the besieged city of Sarajevo. For over four years the people of Sarajevo were trapped in their city, often cold, usually hungry as missiles rained down on them. In spite of many months of fierce attack plucky Sarajevo managed to defend itself – thanks mainly to an 800 metre tunnel that connected the city with “Free Bosnia”.How the exact location of the tunnel was not discovered by the Serbs is a miracle. The tunnel runs under Sarajevo Airport which, although it was designated a neutral zone, was often closed due to heavy shelling. The Serbs knew roughly where the tunnel was but were never able to pinpoint it exactly. The tunnel was no secret; everyone knew of its existence, Serbs included. Food, fuel, medical supplies and arms – all were brought through the tunnel and into the city. Without it Sarajevo would have fallen. The tunnel was the only way the Bosnian defence forces based in the city could get round the arms embargo. It was the Bosnian capital’s only lifeline.
You might well ask why the tunnel was not used to evacuate the city – at least to free civilians who weren’t actively involved in the defence of the city. Quite simply, the tunnel was a useful propaganda tool. The government recognised that only by highlighting the plight of the Bosnian people trapped inside the besieged city could they hope to win the support of the international community and so they placed a heavy restriction on the number of people allowed to leave. Getting to use the tunnel was almost impossible; you needed written permission and obtaining it was not only a slow process but a dangerous one too as you’d have to venture outside of your house and make your way – usually under fire – to offices in the city centre to make your request. Everyone needed money to buy food at inflated prices from the market - even those who issued the paperwork; it was not unsual for people to pay quite large sums of money to buy a ticket through the tunnel.A steady (but still woefully insufficient) stream of aid made its way into Sarajevo through the tunnel on the backs of soldiers and other volunteers. At times the tunnel was knee deep in water and the volunteers would bump their heads on the beams of the low roof. As I walked, bent over, through the 20 metres or so that still exist, I couldn’t help but feel deep admiration for those people who trudged the whole way time and again, knowing that without these goods, the suffering of Sarajevans would be even greater. When I blinked in the sunlight and felt the warm sun on my skin I was relieved to be out of the cramped tunnel; those people who climbed out of the tunnel during the war might still have shelling to contend with and the goods they had brought still had somehow to reach the city itself.
The house under which the city entrance of the tunnel sits is now a museum. It’s in a small village on the edge of the city, just within sight of the airport. It’s humbling to think about the Kolar family who not only allowed the tunnel to be built from under their house, but now effectively curate the tunnel museum which occupies the ground floor of their house and part of their garden while they occupy the upper floors.You can visit the museum independently and can access it using public transport in combination with a short walk. It’s easier to take a taxi from the centre (taxi travel in Sarajevo is very cheap) and you may be able to strike a deal with a driver and ask him to wait. We visited, however, as part of an organised tour from the Tourist Information Office. It was a small tour which comprised only eight of us plus our Bosnian guide. This turned out to be a good way of visiting the tunnel museum because, while travelling there , our guide identified all the landmarks we passed which put into context the dangers of getting to and from the site of the tunnel and also to and from the central market where many of the goods that came through the tunnel ended up, lining the pockets of the black marketers. W e drove down the infamous “Sniper Alley” and on the way we passed the instantly recognisable bright yellow building that is the Holiday Inn, from where the international media reported the events in the besieged city.
We parked up opposite the house and climbed out of the minibus. In spite of the proximity of the airport it’s a very quiet area; if you have ever been to Auschwitz or the battlefields of northern France you might know the strange feeling that you get – peaceful but uneasy, idyllic yet quite horrifying at the same time. It’s hard to put into words but the feeling is quite palpable. The house is like many of the houses in the area but while those have largely been repaired and re-rendered, this one has not so it’s pock-marked façade looks quite disturbing.First we went into a small room where we watched two videos; one about the tunnel – from construction to use – and the other a montage of clips from the siege of the city. Neither were narrated, they didn’t need to be – the horror was only too easy to comprehend. Afterwards we got some time to wander around the exhibits ourselves before our guide came and explained more about them. There were examples of the aid packs that were sent by the International Red Cross; they were originally ration packs for soldiers but Sarajevans were now the recipients and had to make do with these meagre rations every now and again. Other food stuffs did come through the tunnel but often ended up in the hands of black marketeers and were sold at the central market to those who could afford it. To afford it many people sold family heirlooms but to sell them they had to risk their lives to get to the market. This was the ONLY place in the city you could buy and sell things, local markets no longer operated. In two of the bloodiest events of the war the market was shelled on two occasions resulting in the loss of a total of 105 lives (but many more injuries); many of those who died on that day had already managed to avoid death on Sniper Alley on their way to market.
Other exhibits included a chair built to be put on the rails in the tunnel to enable Izetbegovic (who was wheelchair bound) to pass through the tunnel, army bergens filled with weights to give you an idea of what the volunteers carried through the tunnel (women would carry one such bag, men carried one on their back and one in front of them around their neck). One one wall of the main exhibition space are photographs of international statesmen and celebrities who have visited the tunnel museum, pictured with members of the Kolar family and handwritten notes of appreciation and support (Daniel Craig, Emily Watson, Bill Clinton and many more). The museum does not have official status and receives no money towards its running costs from either the local or national government so it relies on admission charges, donations and international press coverage to encourage more visitors to come.Of course, the main aspect of a visit is experiencing what it’s like down in the tunnel. Only a short section can be walked (the remainder of the tunnel collapsed a few years ago) but it’s enough to know that it’s narrow and the roof is low. I’m only five feet two but I still had to stoop slightly as I walked through the tunnel; my OH is a foot taller and was bent almost double and still managed to bang his head on the beams. Although the tunnel was dry it smelled very earthy and I can imagine it would become quite overpowering after a while. I read an account that said sometimes it could take almost two hours to get through the tunnel when carrying two packs and wading through a foot of water, weak with hunger and exhaustion.
Before we left we were given a few minutes to look at part of the exhibition in the space around the entrance to the tunnel. Here there were lists of the names of the people who had died as a result of the siege - about eleven thousand people in total, many of them civilians,and approximately 1,500 of them children. There were a few things to buy but nobody seemed inclined to take home “souvenirs”. Instead several of us took another walk through the tunnel; it seemed the right thing to do, as if showing our support for those who had trudged backwards and forwards through the tunnel during the war.On the way back to town our guide drove us to the village (Dobrinja) where the other end of the tunnel is located. You can’t visit this end of the tunnel but our guide pointed it out as we passed. It was interesting to see how far apart these locations are and the distance you had to drive to get from one to the other; during the war this simply would not have been possible and the goods that came through the tunnel would not have reached the city.
Sarajevo is a wonderfully scenic city, packed full of fascinating sights and I wouldn’t really say that the Tunnel Museum is one of them. I found it very interesting but the Bosnian War is a subject I’m very interested in. If you get talking to locals in Sarajevo you will find plenty of people willing to talk about their experiences of the war and you can learn just as much about the siege of Sarajevo from them as you can from visiting the museum. On the other hand, what the Kolar family is trying to do is very important and the more people that visit the museum, the more likely the project is to secure the funding it needs to keep it open so that future generations can learn what happened in Sarajevo. When the war was taking place I remember many of my own friends showing very little interest in it; to them Yugoslavia was a million miles away on the edge of Europe, but to me Yugoslavia was very much European and this bloody war was taking place right on our doorsteps. Today Europe is much bigger and the mountains of the Caucasus might be said to denote the edge of Europe as countries like Georgia and Ukraine seek to throw their lot in with the west; but the Caucasus are a hotbed of ethnic tension that the Russians seem intent on quashing at any cost. In an ideal world, places like the Tunnel Museum would remind us that war must never come to Europe again but sadly we know that what was said after the persecution of the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s did not prevent the ethnic cleansing that took place in the Former Yugoslavia. Still, while we have these places to remind us there is always hope and for that reason I would urge visitors to Sarajevo to make an effort to get out to the Tunnel Museum.Admission - 5KM (Approximately £2.40 in Sept 2009)
Tours through the Tourist Information Office leave the city at 11.00am and 2.00pm and run daily so long as there are at least three customers. The cost is 12 Euro per person which includes admission to the museum.The museum is open daily between 9.00 am and 5.00pm, but may be open longer into the evening in summer; check with the Tourist Information Office in the city centre.
*Afterword*It is easy to see the Bosnian War in terms of "Bosnians good, Serbians bad". I would be disappointed if I was considered to be anything les than impartial. I have good friends from all parts of the former Yugoslavia and I try not to judge. What happened in Sarajevo was terrible and must never be allowed to happen again. At the same time, I have to wonder about a government that insisted that so many vulnerable people remain in the city when there was a way out. Furthermore, the failure of the authorities to do more to stop the black marketing of aid coming into the city was, in my opinion, shameful.
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