I visited the Sarajevo War Tunnel Museum in April, 2015
‘Fuck war! FUCK WAR!’ The driver yelled. ‘War only good for criminals and for crazy people. Fuck war! Fuck!’ He was becoming louder and louder, gesturing so much his hands barely touched the steering wheel any more. He continued. ‘Fuck we should do instead. Not war. Fuck! Yes. I tell you. We should fuck! Fuck beautiful women! I know. War is bad, very bad. Sex is good, very good.’ He gradually calmed down. Gave a little laugh before continuing on his story.
‘Over one thousand times during siege, one thousand times, I drive. From tunnel and to Mount Igman and back. One thousand times. Under constant bombardement.’ He has told us this before.
At least one in ten of the houses we are passing are just hollow shells, ruined by mortar hits and never rebuilt. Every house, literally every house, shows signs of mortar impact as well as several bullet holes. Some plastered over, others still left as they were twenty years ago. We have just left the Sarajevo War Tunnel Museum, the house where in the basement the entrance to the Sarajevo War Tunnel was. The only safe way in or out of Sarajevo during the siege. We can’t have driven more than a few hundred meters.
‘This is frontline,’ the driver says. He raises his right arm, point his index finger towards the ground, waits for a second or two before he trusts his arm down. ‘THIS is the frontline.’ I see no difference, no visible line, but for him it must be implanted into his head. ‘Now we are in Serb territory. Here they had big artillery.’
I turn around and can see the tunnel museum in the distance. Only a few hundred meters away.
In 1991, just months before the national referendum that would determine whether Bosnia should cecede from Yugoslavia or not, The Yugoslav National Army and Bosnian Serb forces started setting up artillery positions on the hills surrounding Sarajevo. They claimed it was only an exercise and done for the protection of Sarajevo.
When Bosnia decided to leave the Yugoslav Federation, in the spring of 1992, Sarajevo was completely surrounded and locked in. In the district of Dobrinja though, in the southern part of Sarajevo, only the airport, held by the Yugoslav army, separated the city of Sarajevo from Bosnian held territory on Mount Igman. Desperate citizens of Sarajevo would sprint across the runway, under cover of darkness, to try to get in and out of the city with supplies. This left them vulnerable to Serb snipers positioned on both sides of the airport.
In July 1992, the UN made a deal with The Yugoslav Army to take over control of the airport. This did not help the people of Sarajevo much though, as the agreement stipulated that the airport would not be used to bring supplies into the city. Serb forces had the right to stop any UN convoy headed for Sarajevo, and take any supplies for themselves. The people of Sarajevo still had to take the risk of running across the runway at night, dodging sniper bullets. Anyone caught by UN forces, trying to cross the runway, were detained and released the next morning.
In 1993, the group Fazla made their way successfully across the runway, instruments on their backs. They were Bosnia’s contribution, the first one ever, to that year’s Eurovision Song Contest held in Ireland. The Bosnian contribution did not win, probably a good thing, as holding the Eurovision Song Contest in Sarajevo the next year would have been impossible.
There had to be found a safer way in and out of the city. The Bosnian army decided to build a tunnel under the airport. It had to be built in complete secrecy, not even the President of Bosnia was allowed to know at first.
The War Tunnel Museum does not lie near any bus or tram line. Its location was decided by where it was strategically suitable to place the tunnel entrance. It made the house of the family who lived there, the Kolars, a constant target for Serb and JNA artillery. After the war, the family themselves set up the museum, there was little money coming from the Bosnian government, and the Kolars felt this important part of the history of Sarajevo had to be preserved. The museum has been run by the Kolars, without any government funding, the whole time. Lying just behind Sarajevo Airport, the best way to reach it is by taxi.
To get from the museum, instead of calling for a taxi, the man working in the souvenir shop offered to drive us. He closed up the shop and took us around the back of the building to where his car was.
‘You see that green car over there?’ He asked. Besides the grey Nissan he would drive us in, there were two green trucks parked behind the house. He was pointing to the one on the left.
‘During war I drive more than one thousand times to Mount Igman and back. I drive everything. Everything. Weapons, explosives, food, medicine… Everything. And always the serbs fire at me. Always bombardement.’ We stop outside his car.
‘Look,’ he said, pointing in one direction. ‘ You see houses over there. That is Serb territory during war.’ The houses are only a few hundred meters away. He turned around one hundred and eighty degrees. Pointed in the other direction. ‘And you see houses over there? They are Serb frontline. We are right in the middle. They always fire at us. They knew about the tunnel.’ The houses on the other side are no further away. We got in the car and started driving.
Construction of the tunnel began in January 1993. Bosnian forces started digging at both ends at the same time. On the Sarajevo side, lack of wood made them use iron from factories in Sarajevo as support for the tunnel walls and roof. On the other side, wood was used, as iron was in short supply.
The Serbs quickly learned of the existence of the tunnel, and the entrances became targets for mortar fire. The large amounts of earth removed in building the tunnel could be dumped outside the tunnel entrance to create large trenches to protect from aggressor fire.
In the evening of July 30, 1993, the diggers from both sides met in the middle and the tunnel was completed. The very first night, a total of 12 tons of desperately needed army supplies were taken through.
2800 cubic meters of earth had been removed while building the tunnel, everything by manual labour. It was 800 meters long, 1,6 meters wide and tall. At first, all supplied had to be carried on people’s backs, eventually rails were laid down so goods could be carried in carts.
As we get closer to our destination, our driver has calmed down. He tells stories of his many missions during the war. Again and again driving up to Mount Igman, dodging mortar fire and sniper bullets. Many times making the ride extra dangerous by carrying fuel or explosives, which could explode if hit. This man truly is a hero, risking his own life on a daily basis to bring relief to the citizens of Sarajevo. There must be many people like him in Sarajevo I realise, people doing whatever they could to protect Sarajevo from a much better armed foe.
During the war, the tunnel was invaluable to Sarajevo. A daily average of 4000 people passed through it during the time it was in use. Groups varied in size from twenty persons up to one thousand. Supplies had to be brought through at night to minimise the risk of enemy fire, and 20 tons of material could be brought through every night. The tunnel was prone to flooding the whole time during its excistence. At the best of time people waded in water up to their knees, at the worst lower portions of the tunnel was completely flooded. Water would have to be carried out by hand at first, but eventually pumps were installed. As the siege continued, even a pipeline for oil and electric cables were installed through the tunnel, suppling Sarajevo with much needed energy. Wading through a partly flooded tunnel, electric cables on one side, a pipeline on the other, is not exactly safe.
The tunnel continued to operate throughout the war, saving the city and the lives of its 300.000 people. Thanks to the tunnel and heroes like the driver, huge amounts of foodstuff and army material could be transported into Sarajevo every night, helping to keep the people alive and the aggressors at bay.
If you are visiting Sarajevo, going to the tunnel museum should be on your list. Only about twenty meters of the 800 meter long tunnel is open, but there is built a replica above ground to show how it looked during the war. The museum includes a fifteen minute long movie with footage from the war, showing the tunnel in use. There are also many artifacts from the construction of the tunnel and displays showing the front lines during various stages of the war. An English speaking guide can be provided to give you a quick introduction about the tunnel before you set out to explore on your own. Admission is 10KM (5euro).
For more on the siege of Sarajevo, check out my post about Sarajevo Roses