Friday, July 16, 2010
Today I went to see the tunnel.
A brutal battle for control of Sarajevo began in 1992 when Serb militias surrounded the city and created a state of siege. This siege lasted for four years, the longest siege in the history of the modern world. Sarajevo’s citizens were cut off from food, water, and medical supplies in an effort to force their capitulation and control of the city to the Serbs.
In addition to the threats of starvation and disease, the city was under constant grenade, bomb, and sniper attack. The UN had placed an arms embargo on Bosnia. This meant that, in the face of unrelenting weapons attacks from the Serb militias, the Bosnians were not only unable to get vital supplies but they were also at a significant disadvantage in their ability to defend themselves.
It’s chilling to travel through the city with Bosnians and Serbs who lived here during the siege. They talk about the dangers on nearly every street, from nearly every hillside, and their own perilous struggles with four long years of no electricity, no gasoline, and no food.
In 1992 the UN took control of the airport and began to fly in limited humanitarian aid. But there were many times when the airport was closed because of Serb shelling or because of inhospitable weather conditions.
More than 11,000 people died during the siege; 1,500 of them were children. But this is a big city, and the question is – how did most of the population survive?
Part of the answer: the tunnel.
In January 1993, under a home owned by the Kolar family (see below), Bosnians began to dig an 800-meter tunnel that went under the airport and came out in free territory on the other side.
The process took months, under perilous conditions and with no certainty that it could be completed. The work was done manually, with picks and axes, and the debris was taken out in wheelbarrows.
While the work was under way, conflict began between the Bosnians and Croats, who had formerly been allies. The situation clearly became more difficult – and the tunnel’s completion more important.
Word of the tunnel leaked to the Serbs and they targeted the work areas with constant shelling.
The tunnel was finally completed in July 1993, six months after it started. Food, electricity, fuel, newspapers, medicine, telephone lines, and weapons began going into the tunnel – and people came out, those who were important enough to get an opportunity to leave, or those who could pay enough to leave.
People say that the goods that entered the city through the tunnel saved thousands of lives.
Parts of the tunnel remain intact today and are open to the public. There are artifacts on exhibit– uniforms, shell casings, empty food sacks - and photos of the human and material traffic. It’s quite inspiring to see how the courage of the people prevailed at a most difficult time.
It’s also utterly discouraging. The tunnel flooded many times and people had to travel those 800 meters in cold, miserable water, either to go out to safety or to bring in relief to those who couldn’t leave. I was reminded of Jews in the 1940s who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto through the sewers. Fifty years later, a similar flight was happening once again in Europe.
We spent the evening with a Serbian friend who recently graduated from an American university. She has set up several remarkable projects to bring Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats together - a day care center, a soccer program, a summer workshop. These people who believe that everyone can live together have a hope for a peaceful future. However, the entire structure of the country following the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords is based on ethnicity, on specific representation of Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs in every aspect of society.