Near the Sarajevo Airport, in the suburb of Butmir, is a house that used to belong to the Kolar family. Its exterior is pockmarked in that now familiar Bosnian way, the markings of bullets, shrapnel, war. It looks like any house in a quiet spot outside the bustle of the city, but is actually one of the most important sites in Sarajevo. Two tour buses pulled in while we were there, one carried a group of Chinese daytrippers, the other had arrived all the way from Turkey. Backpackers set down their loads at the entrance, most likely visiting before or after a flight. Our own journey there was courtesy of a taxi driver named Rasim. Each of us were there to see something undeniably important. In the family's backyard, in the side of a grassy mound, is the southern entrance of the Sarajevo Tunnel, the secret weapon with which the people of Sarajevo managed to survive during the longest siege of any capital city in modern history. One thousand days. "Without the tunnel, everybody dies," said Rasim.
The roughly 3,000 ft long tunnel was devised by the Bosnian army and dug by volunteers over the first seven months of 1993. The men worked in four hours shifts around the clock to secretly connect blockaded Sarajevo with the "free" or "neutral" area near the airport, which was Bosnian held and UN controlled. On July 30th, two excavators working from opposite sides of the tunnel had finally dug far enough to meet each other. They shook hands in the middle and hundreds of thousands of lives were given hope. With the tunnel complete, international humanitarian aid that arrived by plane could be transported into the completely cut-off population inside the city. Around 20 million tons of food entered the city this way, single-handedly keeping its inhabitants alive for 3 and a half years.
"I went through the tunnel twice," Rasim recounted casually. Once, was to pick up a package sent from his cousin. The other was to shop for food in the Bosnian-held territory on the other side. "It was much cheaper," he said, "inside the city, food was ten times the price!" He said this like a neighbor telling you about their money-saving drive to Costco as opposed to a man who lived in a blockaded city in which any food that remained or was smuggled in was sold for high prices by war profiteers. It never ceases to amaze me how these stories are told to us with such ease. How the definition of 'normal' can be so drastically distorted.
"Perhaps for people who experienced very terrible things, it would be harder to come back to Sarajevo," but not for her, Mia reasoned to us over dinner. Just before meeting her, we were told by a mutual friend that she had escaped through the tunnel in 1995 - at nineteen years old and at the edge of starvation. She and her husband were handed plane tickets to Burlington, Vermont on the other side and were whisked off to the Zagreb airport before even being given a meal. "She only remembers putting her foot in the water," we were told on our walk to meet Mia. The tunnel had a constant pool of water at its bottom. Sometimes, it reached knee-height. Imagine sloshing through the meter wide space with a live, mega watt electric cable running alongside your hunched head. In the dark. It would be scary if the word "scary," just like her use of "terrible," hadn't been so intensely redefined.
Mia and her husband were more an exception than the rule. Most of the million or so people who made the trip through the Sarajevo Tunnel were bringing supplies in or helping the sick, wounded or very important out. Government documents were required to enter the tunnel from either side and one way trips out were almost exclusively allotted to children, the elderly, the dying and the dead. And VIPS, of course, like Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who was pushed through the tunnel on an armchair rigged up to a trolley by the Kolar family's then-18 year old son, Edis. A gripping, mostly wordless documentary shown inside the Tunnel Museum had footage of some of these journeys. As people emerged in the Kolar backyard, the wrinkled matriarch would hand them a cup of water.
People and food were far from the only transports through the Sarajevo
Tunnel. An arms embargo meant that any weapons or ammunition needed to
be smuggled in this way. Germany provided cables to bring in a little
electricity and a few telephone lines. Oil was piped in, military and
medical equipment, everything. The design of the tunnel was tweaked and
updated throughout its three year usage. Points were widened to allow
people to pass each other if coming from opposite directions, a rail
line similar to that in mine shafts was added. When the Serbian forces
figured out where the Sarajevo-side entry was a new, stronger entrance was constructed. Any attempt to collapse the tunnel with bombs was futile, as the it had been ingeniously dug in a wide L shape. So, even with knowledge of both entry points, the Serbs couldn't pinpoint the underground trail between them.
The original entrance on the Sarajevo side was in the basement of one of these houses. Nothing is known of who owned it, Rasim wasn't even sure which one it was. Most likely, the family had abandoned the house in some way before it was chosen as the entryway. From inside Sarajevo, you see bucolic hillsides all around you. A natural ring around the city, the forested slopes remind you of mountain air, cold springs and leafy shade while pounding the pavement. At the very top, after the orange roofs of the hillside villages peter out, the green changes from sweet pea to deep emerald. The trees get denser and pointier. This was the Serbian front line. You can instantly see how easy it was to surround and cut off the city. While the Serbs held the city from above, showering it with ammunition, blockading it from all the resources one needs to survive, Sarajevans found salvation down below, in the basement of one suburban house and the backyard of another. Through the Sarajevo Tunnel. The Tunnel Museum is well worth a trip outside the city center.