Sarajevo – Fact Check

Stories of despair in the Tunnel of Hope

Despite its many historical sights, visitors to Sarajevo remain fascinated by the war, as seen in this large caliber ammunition for sale as souvenirs. The city's most popular attraction is the 20-meter remnant of the 800-meter-long "Tunnel of Hope" dug under the airport during the 1992-95 war.

Photo by Andrew Burke / Getty Images

Sarajevo – Fact Check

Stories of despair in the Tunnel of Hope

The Tunnel Museum of Sarajevo is all about hope.

Gavin Haines
Gavin Haines Travel Writer

In fact, its nickname is “tunnel of hope,” which is a befitting name. Burrowed beneath the runway at Sarajevo International Airport, this secret, subterranean passage was the only way in and out of the city during the infamous Siege of Sarajevo, when Serbian forces surrounded the Bosnian capital and bombarded it continuously for nearly four years. If it was not raining missiles, it was pouring.

Hamdija Hasanovic, who grew up in downtown Sarajevo at the height of the Bosnian War (1992-1995), made the journey through the tunnel twice to collect supplies from the Bosnian Free Territory on the other side of the airport. “All the time I ask myself why I came back? On the other side it was safer and they had Coca-Cola, bananas and chocolate,” he says. “People said I was stupid to go back to Sarajevo, so why did I do it? Maybe it was the love of my city.”

We walk down some stairs and into a small, bunker-like room where old ammunition boxes have found new lives as seats. They have been arranged in front of an old television, which is playing a documentary about the siege. Footage shows buildings alight, people cowering from gunfire and victims bleeding. It makes for uneasy viewing.

Joining me inside the bunker, perched on one of the boxes, is a man who I estimate to be in his late 60s. He might be younger – war ages people – and his kind eyes betray a haunted past. He looks like a man who has seen too much. It turns out he was a policeman during the war. “Our job was to protect people, keep people from the streets and write reports about what was happening,” he says, shaking his head. “It was a nightmare – all night and all day, it was unselective firing. There are no words to describe it.”

Giving his name only as Samil, he describes how, during the siege, people from Serbia came to Sarajevo on their days off to help bomb the city. “It was like a sport for them,” he says, still shaking his head. The documentary takes on a cheerier tone, showing footage of local men constructing the tunnel. They whistle songs, puff on cigarettes and laugh at private jokes, mining humour from the depths of despair. “Thousands of people came through the tunnel with supplies – food, clothing, everything,” explains Samil, as we watch footage of a man emerging from the passageway with a goat.

As the documentary draws to a close he makes a hasty departure, bidding me farewell with a handshake and a pursed smile. I wonder why he came here to relive those awful memories. Did he think it would be cathartic?

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