Sarajevo Siege Tour

Today was very much a lesson in the hard hitting truth that there are three sides to a story, yours, mine, and the truth that sits somewhere in between.

I went on a four-hour “Total Siege Tour” with Funky Sarajevo Tours. This felt like the best way to hit some sites that are just about not accessible by public transportation and at 40KM (plus 10KM for entrance to the war tunnel), it was better value than hiring a taxi. They were not my first choice for a tour, but could fit me in this morning, so that’s why I picked them.

I have such mixed feelings about my guide and the tour she gave us. Now that I’ve processed it all, I can say that the tour was a good experience and worth what I paid for it, but I think she needs a little guidance on what is appropriate to say or not. I am willing to give her a lot of slack for times that she said indelicate things that were perhaps lost in translation.

She was 23 when the siege started. The thing she said to us today that I will never forget is, “I was eating pizza when the first shell fell.” That says everything about how memorable the moment was, that she can remember it in such detail.

I think an issue I had with her tour is that I feel that such things should be neutral and represent both sides of an issue. But this war is very recent and the wounds are still raw. For her, there might not be war right now, but there is not peace and the Serbs were and still are very much the enemy. She invited us to get a Serbian perspective, repeating many times that there are two sides to a story, but it was very clear that she felt that she was a victim in the siege and the Serbs were aggressors.

Another thing that stuck out is that she told us many times how unfair the siege was, that they were a European country, not some uncivilised back water. I held my tongue at reminding her that the Bosnian War was just one of several terrible conflicts in Europe and among so-called civilised nations. But I said nothing because she was obviously so wounded and so marked by events that I cannot even begin to conjure. She was able to flee to France partway through the siege, but the damage was done.

She also seems to resent the foreign community, feeling that they didn’t care about the suffering of the Sarajevans and that they came in much too late. She also said something that I had to really process because I felt so insulted, but I’m going to chalk it up to a translation issue because of a conversation we had much later. I got the impression that she was saying that people are now coming to Bosnia, but where were we when Bosnia needed us, and that we’re basically rubber necking. But that is a lot of projection and interpretation on my part. Considering how many times she would later thank me for coming to Bosnia and Sarajevo and being a positive ambassador to her country, I think I totally misinterpreted her initial comment that threw me off.

So this was a very different account of the siege than that of a man who was but a young boy at the time. This is a woman who, if I understood her correctly, had many family members massacred, who had friends who were among the 20,000 women raped, who experienced the shelling and the privations. I am completely sympathetic to her and am grateful that she shared her story and reminded us many times that this interpretation is just one of many.

The day started off a bit rockily because I had a hard time finding Sarajevo Funky Tours office since it is a the end of an alley and there is no signage other than in a recessed window that you can’t see until you’re right up to it. It was frustrating to nearly be late when the location was so close and convenient for me, at the end of my street and about half a block over, that I didn’t give myself much extra time to get there for nine. But I could have been late since we had to wait for another couple anyway.

I can’t even begin to recall everything that she told us on our half-day tour. A huge chunk of it was as we were going down “Sniper Alley,” the main thoroughfare through Sarajevo, at too fast a clip to take pictures. I am definitely going to walk that way tomorrow afternoon and get pictures and more information on what I saw. It was just too rainy and I had too much work to do to go ahead with that plan today. So consider this post one of two. I cannot get out of my mind right now the sky-high apartment blocks that still have impact craters. How are they structurally sound?!

We saw and heard so much on that 20 or so minute drive. I was enrapt even if I found the guide’s rapid-fire delivery a bit much. But I appreciated how much she was trying to cram in. Being on site and having a guide who was right there brought history to life. It reminded me of a conversation I had with an Auschwitz survivor some years ago.

Our first stop of the day was the Tunnel of Life, by the airport. This was Sarajevo’s lifeline to the outside world and passed under the runway.

We saw this map quite a bit later in our tour of the War Tunnel, but I’m presenting it now so that you can get some visuals. I really didn’t understand the terrain until we got to this sign and then everything came together. So what you see is Sarajevo surrounded in red by the Serbian forces, with the airport (blue) at a narrow point to the south (top of the map is south, bottom is north). The tunnel was used to move everything from guns to food to medicine. People who had money were able to get out that way as well. The tunnel on both sides was in the basement of a private home. The tunnel museum is on the south side at the Kolar family residence and we can visit 25 of the 800 metres of the tunnel.

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Sarajevo Airport.

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The Kolar home, now the Tunnel Museum. Tunel Spasa means “tunnel of life.” We saw a 12-minute video of raw footage from ’92 that shows this house sitting in the middle of a mud field.

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The video was incredible as I could see buildings being bombarded that have since been reconstructed. I was 13 years old when this war started and 17 when it ended. I remember the news reports, but we didn’t have the internet back then so we were limited in how much we knew and what we did know was biased.

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I think I kind of sort of get what this sign is trying to say if you consider WWI as the start of the 20th century, with that conflict also being triggered in Sarajevo.

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The tunnel entrance is under that metal piece at the back. We will return.

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A Sarajevo rose.

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Mockup of a land mine. Our guide confirmed my research that says that mines are still a problem in the wilder parts of the country and to make sure an area has been cleaned up before heading out in the wilderness. She also spoke about how Princess Diana came to Bosnia just before her death to protest landmines.

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The tunnel runs under this field. There are plans to reopen the whole of it.

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Sobering facts. Our guide did remember the ’84 Olympics very fondly. She was 16 at the time.

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Here’s another moment where she just casually tossed out something that surprised me. This is what they cooked on and heated with during the siege. I forget what her exact quote was, but something along the lines of, “Can you imagine going from IKEA to this?” What a reminder that ’92 was not that far away. I spent a good chunk of the tour remembering what I was doing ’92 to ’95 (my high school years).

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Tunnel entrance.

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But first, we went into that little room.

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One of the rebuilding aids that was sent to Sarajevo was PVC windows. That explains why every house in Sarjevo seems to have really nice new windows.

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We went into the tunnel. I’m 5’6″ and I had to stoop. I had had enough of the experience about halfway through this 25-metre section. I can’t imagine going through all 800 metres with a 50-pound pack of supplies on my back…

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Here, we were shown an example of how people lived in their basements. She again make the comment about how they went from IKEA to this.

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This was a pump to get rid of the water in the tunnels. The video showed that the water was quite deep at times.

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Here’s a model of the tunnel and area.

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There were rails in the tunnel so that things and immobile people could be moved on wheels.

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She talked to us a bit about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s work in Bosnia, including Jolie’s movie Land of Blood and Honey. I haven’t seen it, but have heard pretty terrible things about it. Our host seemed to think it represented reality and told us that the Serbs are working on a movie of their own in retaliation for how they were portrayed in Land of Blood and Honey.

From the war tunnel, we headed up into the mountains to get a better perspective on where the shells were coming from and to see the luge track from the ’84 Olympics. Speaking of which:

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I was really disappointed that we didn’t even stop to look at it more closely…

And then, we pulled over to see Sarajevo spread out below us. There was light artillery here and on all the surrounding mountaintops. It’s “only” two kilometres as the crow flies to the city centre. Imagine yourself as one of the people in the city below in the sights of the big guns.

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You can see the parrot building clearly in this shot.

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City Hall stands out here. The movie we’d seen at the tunnel showed it, and many other buildings, on fire. The rebuilding effort has been amazing, but, like Neno said yesterday, our guide reminded us that there is a lot of corruption and in-fighting so the money isn’t going where it needs to go and rebuilding is very slow.

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So many cemeteries…

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Our next stop was the luge track! As it turns out, it’s now a walking path! What a lovely way to nearly end the tour, in all that fresh  mountain air. Because of Sarjevo’s position in the valley and the fact that there is a lot of pollution, the air quality is terrible. I could not believe the difference up there.

So you can see the start of a track and some stands where people sat. Our guide said that she stood some distance down the track to get a better view.

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The track was filled with insulation and then water to make slick ice.

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What an incredible space to walk or mountain bike!

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Our final official stop was this restaurant that was a headquarters of sorts during the war. It was destroyed by the retreating forces.

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I don’t know why, but coming upon this text freaked me out!

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She pointed out the Franciscan church and remarked on how unusual Sarajevo is because you can hear both church bells and the adhan. It seems like the many religions here have found a way to coexist and that this is very much a modern, European, Muslim population that cannot see itself in the more oppressive Islamic countries.

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There was an impressive storm rolling in!

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We were past our return time, so we then sped down the mountain into town. The Americans in our group wanted one last shot of the city and I took the time to take this shot of an old railway station.

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And another minaret.

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We were dropped off at the office, which, again, was convenient for me since it would be easy to get home. The threatening rain was holding off, so I decided to get lunch and buy a few groceries for a supper at home. I wound up wandering around in circles for too long looking for that Middle Eastern Tea For Two restaurant I ate at on Saturday and was just about to give up when I finally spotted it! Lunch was very good chicken kebabs. The Moroccan spice tea was was very welcome after that chilly walk!

(pausing to listen to the adhan)

It was spitting when I came out of the restaurant. I went to a little grocery store I’d spotted the other day that is conveniently located and got salami, cheese, and tomatoes for a cold supper. Then I remembered how damp the flat was yesterday in the heavy rain and added a package of soup so I would have something warm! That reminds me that I went out in the pouring rain last night to get dinner and was so soaked by the time that I got to the market that I went straight back to Minder Fast Food, who were, thankfully, open! I had another lovely meal there. It’s a new restaurant, not even on TripAdvisor, and my own little secret piece of Sarajevo!

I got in and went to work, pausing in the late afternoon to do laundry that I really hope will dry by Thursday morning!

It’s been another big day in Sarajevo, with so much to ponder. I’ve got two days left and will try to visit a few buildings and museums, as well as do that walk downtown, depending on my workload.

8 thoughts on “Sarajevo Siege Tour

  1. As usual, I am LOVING this closeup tour of a city (and part of Europe) I’ve never been to — but hope to, some day. Thank you so much.

    But thinking about your comments…
    If we had gone through the hardships your tour guide had, we would probably be a lot less diplomatic about that time period, too. I really can’t blame her at all. It takes great courage to even say that there are two sides of the story, you really should hear the other one as well, blah blah blah.
    I’d probably have cut her more slack in this department because of that.

    On the other hand, the whole war seems like an incredible waste. So many people killed and things destroyed…for what?? The African ethnic wars rouse the same feelings inside. WHO CARES what nationality you are, or what group you hail from, as long as you’re honest, pay your bills, treat your neighbors right, and are the citizen you should be?
    I know — this is simplistic. And the ideal world sure doesn’t happen a lot. But there are a lot of Americans now who are such ‘mutts,’ nationality-wise, that we would have a hard time arguing that this culture or that was the superior one.
    Bear in mind, too, that many of the powderkeg situations that have happened in the U.S. lately involve ‘victims’ who are not exactly model citizens. Which makes you wonder if the real truth is a lot less skewed than protestors make it out to be. My two cents…

    • Cindy, my feeling compassion for this woman is not mutually exclusive from my having certain expectations about professionalism. A tour is not a therapy session and saying things along the lines of “You guys who went to Belgrade and loved it are naïve,” (and I’m hugely paraphrasing there, but the general sentiment was of one of disgust for Belgrade) is not appropriate.

      I otherwise share your feelings. I just can’t imagine hating someone for something they can’t change about themselves, like the colour of their skin or who their parents were.

      One day, I hope to make it to Kigali to attempt to make sense of the Rwandan genocide.

  2. You have been very busy running around town 😉 .
    Like only you can do, an excellent review of your tours.
    I hope you find some fun things to do & not all depressing.
    I’m enjoying your post as always.
    And you got to do laundry 🙂 , it’s on my wish list 😉 during my trek south.
    Stay safe & HUGS

    • Our guide said that just five to ten years ago, it was difficult, it not impossible, to find good things in Sarajevo, only memories of the bad things. Now, there is a lot of culture and the city is being reborn.

      As for laundry, I do it by hand. 🙂

  3. And here we sit, complacent in our own little worlds thinking these things can only happen somewhere else. On our minds are more important things like why doesn’t my cable work and the internet signal isn’t strong enough.

    Yet what you are seeing is going on right now in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine, Venezuela, well the list goes on. We watch the news changing channels yet the message is the same. Safe at home and “over there” it’s a mess. We don’t realize how many innocent people are caught up in the day to day battles and that each one has a story, a life, a child, a lover, an obligation that may go unfulfilled.

    Simple tragic but important to share with others to remind us that what we see and hear is real, it’s not just a picture on a television screen or printed words in a newspaper or internet page.

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