Amir and Laurie descend into the tunnel
We ate breakfast at the hotel this morning and Amir met us at 9:30. Our adventures today would take us all over Sarajevo, from old town all the way to the airport. Amir isn’t afraid to walk and we see lots when he guides us.
We took a cab to an area near the airport to see one of the major tourist attractions related to the siege. When the city was under siege, it was totally surrounded. There was only one narrow passage out of the city and it had it’s own issues as well. The UN held the airport and the only way out of the city was to run, in the open and totally exposed to snipers, ACROSS THE AIRPORT AND RUNWAY.
The Bosnians held a narrow strip on the other side of the runway and a clear path over a very rugged mountain. This was the ONLY way in and out of the city. The UN allowed no one else to use the airport. At night, or sometimes during the day, people would run across the runway to get to the other side of the Bosnian controlled area, or as Amir called it, “Free Bosnia”. They would zig zag to keep from being shot by snipers, but it was a LONG way in totally open areas. When you got to the other side, you had to navigate minefields and trenches before you could get to where you were going.
An actual section of the tunnel. They called it "The tunnel of life".
The UN said they could not let the Sarajevo residents escape via the airport, and they were peace keepers only……but they apparently were doing little to keep the peace. Crossing the runway was problematic with the UN, and the UN controlled the ground and air at the airport. The one thing the UN did not control was the underground. So the Bosnians dug an 800 meter long tunnel under the airport from the narrow strip held by the Bosnians into the sieged city of Sarajevo.
The tunnel was not glamorous. It was a meter wide, and 1.6 meters tall (5 foot 3 inches) so you had to crouch as you went through it. It also had water in it every time it rained and often times when it wasn’t raining. It was so narrow it was very difficult for two people to pass in the tunnel. The people in the tunnel carried backpacks to move goods and such. Food, ammunition, medicine, weapons, fuel (by a small pipeline), and some electricity wires entered the city by the tunnel. Refugees, the wounded, diplomats, even the president of Bosnia exited the city by the tunnel.
The truck tunnel that only saw a week of use.
There wasn’t much of a real army, just civilians fighting to survive with whatever training and weapons they could get. Those with military training in Sarajevo would train those they could. Amir was one of these people on the Bosnian Defense Force. He actually passed through the tunnel twice during the siege, once when his unit went out of the city to relieve a unit on the lines keeping the path over the mountain open, and once when he returned.
Amir is probably 6’-4” (almost two meters) tall. He had his battle and survival gear on his back going out and on the return he had his battle and survival gear and whatever food he could bring back in for his family. He said coming back was the worst as the pack was much heavier. He also didn’t know it at the time, but he had contracted hepatitis on the front lines in the mountains. He had to stop half way because he was having difficulty making it and sat in a “cut out” on the side of the tunnel for a few minutes.
He said he thought he was delirious at the time as he started to smell perfume. As he sat there, models in fancy dresses began to pass where he was sitting. At this point he thought he had gone totally crazy…..but there were actually models in the tunnel. Someone had put together a fashion show in the city and these were the models who were in the show.
Bill and Amir outside of the tunnel
Amir told us of things they did while under siege to keep life somewhat normal. Joan Baez actually came into the city and stayed, and put on a concert at a relatively safe theater. A Miss Sarajevo pageant took place, music concerts, cultural things, trying to lend a sense of normalcy into a situation that was anything but. They did this for their own sanity, and probably more than a little to spite those that held their city under siege. They were a resilient lot.
A larger tunnel was dug that would actually accommodate a small truck, but it was finished about a week before the siege was over. It saw no use. But there’s a picture of it in the slideshow and they haven’t filled it in. With their history…..I can’t blame them. I’d be careful too.
From here, we took a cab back into town. We toured the Jewish Museum, which turned out to be a pretty well put together museum. The Jews were treated differently here than in much of Europe. They were put into ghettos in most of Europe, but in typical Bosnian style, they were just like everyone else here.
Star of David and a minaret from a mosque, side by side for hundreds of years.
Jews held regular jobs (something that wasn’t allowed in many places in Europe), had their own places of worship, and weren’t really considered any different from anyone else. The Museum was actually in an old synagogue. From the courtyard you could see the minarets of nearby mosques, and the steeples of Christian churches. Everybody got along.
After this we had a lunch at a very traditional Bosnian restaurant. Amir knew all of these great restaurants and coffee houses that were up alleys and off the beaten path, places that we probably wouldn’t have found if he had not taken us. We all had burek (a stuffed pastry), and soup. It was a nice, leisurely lunch.
After lunch, Laurie and Amir went to the main mosque for a tour while I went in search of a cash machine. I got some more cash, a quick coffee, and bought a cute little gift for Laurie. Then I headed back to meet Laurie and Amir. After meeting them, we headed out for the Bosnian Museum.
One of the few good things the UN did was furnish the people in the city with plastic. They needed to cover the windows in winter to keep from freezing. Replacing the glass only lasted as long as the next shelling when the window was blown out again. The plastic would only tear, and they furnished tape to fix it.
We toured the museum and looked at a lot of historical artifacts. Laurie wanted to see the Haggadah, which I mentioned yesterday. It’s probably the most single valuable thing in the country. It is kept I a very special climate and light controlled room inside of a glass cube. The room itself is sealed and you can’t go in, but you can see the Haggadah. Except for today….someone was doing research on it and it was on a bench to the side. You could see it…but not that well.
After the museum we headed back to the old town for the one thing we have not yet done……real Bosnian coffee. Once again, Amir led us to a place we would never have found on our own. Bosnian coffee is VERY strong. You take very small sips and you “cut” it with tiny bites of a candy that comes with the coffee. I thought it couldn’t have that big of an affect, but it actually does. Amir taught us all the tricks to drinking Bosnian coffee.
Amir explaining how to drink real Bosnian coffee
After this we head back towards our hotel. We bid Amir goodbye. I cannot express how much he added to our visit to Sarajevo and how much he taught us. Time spent with Amir was the highpoint of our visit to Sarajevo. If you are interested in Sarajevo………go. If you want to learn so much more about it than you thought you could, get in touch with Amir. He will make your visit as wonderful as ours. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Good night everyone. Tomorrow……so long to Sarajevo, until we meet Sarajevo again.