Thursday, May 14, 2009

The tunnel

There were no stores in Sarajevo during the war. The food on the few street black markets came from outside of the city. Since we were under siege, there were no roads in and out of the city, except during short periods of peace agreements.

In the first couple of war years, volunteers working in eight-hour shifts dug out a tunnel underneath the airport runway, which led to a little town Hrasnica, on the "free" territory controlled by the Bosnian army. The tunnel was mainly for the soldiers, but every now and then they would allow civilians to pass through. Even when the civilians were allowed, if an army group or some politicians happen to come to the tunnel at that moment, all civilian traffic was halted, sometimes for hours. Some paid big money to go through the tunnel, either to evacuate from the city or to bring large quantities of food to sell on the markets. Others, like us, just wanted to buy for themselves some food that was 5 times more expensive on the black markets in Sarajevo. The tunnel was just about 5 ft high and had rails on the ground, for mine-like carts, that transported everything from weapons, people, to food.

The tunnel was built in my neighbourhood of forty thousand, Dobrinja. Since it was at the edge of city line next to the airport and surrounded on three sides by Serb army, it was also one of the most dangerous regions in the city. The area around the tunnel was long emptied of all residents, because in the first days of the war the national army took hold of the airport and positioned their tanks and artillery there. There were also massive slaughters of people in their homes close to the airport, which contributed to this area quickly becoming a military only zone. Between all the buildings were trenches, and that was the only way to get close to the tunnel. The entrance to the tunnel was through the basement of a house belonging to the Kolar family. Part of the house is now a museum. The basement holds army uniforms, shell casings, and empty sacks of humanitarian aid. Today, only 20 metres of the tunnel survive - the rest has collapsed.

The tunnel ran for approximately 870 yards in length. That distance from above the ground looks so short, but it could take hours to go through the tunnel.
This picture was taken at the entrance on the other side, and in the distance, on the other side of the runway, is where we used to live. One day, I think in late 1995, my mom, her friend and I decided to try to go through the tunnel and get some food in Hrasnica.

It was close to impossible to obtain a civilian permit to legally enter the tunnel; you either had to have strong connections with military/police who controlled the entrance, or pay hundreds of dollars equivalent money to get the papers. So, we talked to people who had done it before, and got directions through the neighbourhood and the tranches to the side entrance to the main trench leading into the Kolar house. It was just 20 min walk from where we lived, but quite dangerous once we went passed inhabited buildings. Being on the first line of defense, this area was often covered with land mines. We were told which buildings to go through; they all had holes in the concrete walls through the entire length of the building, so that people can run through the building instead of outside and be out of site from the snipers. Then we had to maneuver through a maze of certain trenches, jump out by the garbage mini-hill, jump into the trenches again, turn right when we see a cow (!)...and when we finally reached the final leg of the trench leading toward the house, we had to wait for a good moment when the guards were not looking so that we can jump into the line with other "legal" people. The official entrance where the guards check the papers was before this point in the line, so the guards were not so vigilant for anyone sneaking in through other trenches - only those crazy folks like us would attempt something like that. We were very lucky to have made it safe, and weren't ratted out for cutting in the line.

We quickly made it into the house,down the stairs into the basement and were in the dark tunnel. The guards controlling the traffic through the tunnel would only allow flow in one direction, because the tunnel was very narrow. People on the other side would have to wait until everyone from the opposite side would come out. There was very little light in the tunnel and we had to just move with the flow. It had steel support beams, and because the ceiling was so low, many people hit their heads, so many beams had blood on them. We tried to keep our heads low, and watch where we step. People coming back would had dropped their load, probably when bumping their head, so there were potatoes, smashed eggs and similar obstacles between the rails that we had to watch for. When we finally reached the other side, I remember a sigh of relief, not only to be outside of claustrophobic tunnel, but also a sense of freedom that this town had.

We made our purchases, our eyes wide open in awe of all the food available. The money we had was from my mom's quasi salary, that was sometimes made in cigarettes, which we traded on the black markets, as well as other non-perishable food collected from other sources. Our main items on the list were eggs, fresh produce and meat, all rarely seen in our diet those days, as well as other things such as cooking oil, spices, sweets, and coffee. We loaded probably 50 pounds each, huge backpacks so heavy that I was bent over the entire time - it helped not to hit the steel beams on the way back. :) When we lined up at the tunnel entrance in Hrasnica, we had to wait few hours because military battalion had arrived and they had the right of way. I remember degradation as all of us waiting there were treated as some lower class by police patrolling the entrance. All they would tell us is that tunnel was currently closed to civilians and we all had to just wait. It was getting dark, we were already tired, and we still had to make the hardest part of the trip and carry all that food through the tunnel. When we finally made it in, I felt like a mule under all that pressure, just following the person in front of me, trying to keep my head low and not to fall down. We made it home safely, and my brother was very happy to see us alive, safe, and to dig in into all that yummy food.

We never considered going through the tunnel again.

More pictures


  1. Wow, Zvezdena, once again you tell an amazing story. I can't imagine going through a tunnel like that and being so scared for not only my safety, but for my mother! You were very brave!

  2. Thank you Lauren. Even I, reliving these experiences through writing, have a hard time grasping the strength we must have had to endure those years and still stay sane!