When Sarajevo was besieged in 1992 and the entire city was surrounded by Serbian forces, with no source of electricity, water or food. At that time, a complete takeover and annihilation were imminent. This is the story of Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope that kept the city alive until NATO intervened, 4 years into the siege. It is in the Kolar Family home.
As the people of Sarajevo were dying of hunger and extreme weather conditions, it was clear that they could not survive another winter. The police and Bosnian military also knew of the imminent danger to their survival. After much brainstorming and many engineering designs, they came up with the only (remotely) viable option.
Sarajevo is the largest city and now capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is set in a valley which was entirely surrounded by the Serbian forces. The only section in the perimeter not swarming with Serbian forces was the UN-controlled airport. So, their only option was to dig a tunnel under the airport runway.
For orientation, the following maps show the occupied and free regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Building Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope
The tunnel was built from Dobrinja Olympic village on the Sarajevo occupied side, under the airport, to Butmir in Bosnian free territory.
128 people dug the tunnel from one side and 132 people dug from the other side. They dug continuously as their lives, their families’ lives and their city’s survival depended on them.
They dug the tunnel 24hrs a day, with the only tools they had –
- simple hand shovels for digging
- wheelbarrows for hauling dirt
- buckets & ropes for draining groundwater
- lamps for light
They dug non-stop for 4 months and 4 days, despite the heavy bombing and artillery action at their doorstep.
They dug the tunnel 5m deep in the ground, 1m wide, 1m 60cm high and 800m long. It was a huge endeavor yet barely large enough to get through.
A Deadly Top Secret
The city’s survival depended on the tunnel. The existence of the tunnel was a huge problem for the Serbian agenda. The Serbians knew about the tunnel. So, they continuously bombed the neighborhood, even killing the engineers and workers. But, as much as they tried, they couldn’t figure out the exact locations of the tunnel entrances.
The Bosnians did succeed in keeping this a super secret tunnel, even as they transported the city’s food supply, electricity, residents, relatives, animals, politicians, military etc. They did it all right under the watch of the Serbian forces that came up to the houses and shelled them but couldn’t figure out the entrance.
The tunnel had 2 secret entrances from the Sarajevo sieged side and 2 entrance on the free Butmir, free Bosnian side. All concealed in plain sight.
Transportation Under Ground
The Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope was small and nearly a kilometer long. But it was only wide enough to be used in one direction at a time and high enough for an adult to hunch through. This led to major traffic jams and delays in crossing.
Sometimes bags of eggs would break in the tunnel, giving the tunnel a horrible smell of rotten eggs.
With the local geology, the water table in this area is quite high. Often the ground water would flood the tunnel and people had to wade through it.
Electric cables ran through the tunnel for lighting and to power the hospitals and important buildings in the city.
People had to walk half a mile with the most luggage possible, hunched down, through water, electric cables overhead, smelling rotten eggs and little air circulation. It was this perseverance that saved the city and the ethnic group from vanishing.
Travelers Through Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope
The tunnel, Sarajevo’s lifeline, gave transit to many – goods carriers, visitors, families, injured people, army, presidents, leaders, and smugglers who made millions of trips through the tunnel. The tunnel was used to transport water, food, weapons, tobacco, animals and everything one can imagine.
A Special Visitor
During the siege, our guide Enus’s auntie from the free Bosnian territory visited them in occupied Sarajevo. She came through the tunnel with her young kid for €1,000. She took a taxi in the middle of the night to their apartment near the cathedral, escaping all the snipers and bombshells. She brought as many goodies as possible.
Enus’s dad was ecstatic when he got the Marlboro cigarettes. You see, cigarettes were worth their weight in gold (metaphorically speaking). It was like a currency that could be traded for many precious supplies.
Smuggling through Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope
As with any war, this one too presented opportunities for smugglers and war profiteers. With the extreme scarcity, everything was very expensive, so smugglers had great incentive to jack up the prices and make a lucrative business of transporting basic essentials and selling at an exorbitant price. For example, 1kg of coffee cost €55. I liter of gasoline cost €20. Some people made a ton of money in the process. While some locals talk about the smuggling problem, it was a very small fraction of the supplies that saved the population of Sarajevo.
The Tunnel Site Today
The current site includes the underground tunnel, a museum, posters, restrooms, and large rooms for audiovisuals playing documentaries from 1992-1996. It’s quite well made and maintained.
The Kolar Family
Sarajevo and 20th-century historians owe the Kolar family a great deal for their efforts in preserving Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope, the building, and the museum. It’s a precious treasure for us all to learn about the tough times and to celebrate human ingenuity. Not to mention how graciously they offered their home as the entrance and construction site of the tunnel.
The war ended with the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1996 but the country was still in disarray. The tunnel without which the city would have perished was quickly forgotten. Within a few years of neglect, it was flooded and was collapsing. The tunnel became a myth as some said it was a fabricated fictional story. The new corrupt government had no interest in preserving history. In fact, the government was demolishing the houses in the area and erasing the history.
Bajro Kolar, the house owner, was devastated at the neglect and loss of such important history. He felt that if he lost the history, he would lose himself. He strongly felt that he had the obligation to build the museum “… not only for himself but for the whole world”. So, with his family, they started collecting all the objects they could find near their house and started restoring the tunnel and the house. He built the museum and audio-visual room showing the videos from then. In 2013, the management was transferred to Memorial Found of Sarajevo Canton.
Even after the reconstruction, no magazines or articles would talk about the tunnel. It was first covered by Tim Clancy, a New Yorker who had passed through the tunnel in 1993 as a humanitarian worker. Quite rightfully, he said, “The tunnel is a monument of the strength of human spirit and as such, it needs to be seen by every American and European”. Ever since, this has been a popular site, included in many historic tours of Sarajevo.
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