If you read my blogpost about “The Roses of Sarajevo,” you know that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital city went from being the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics to a city under siege in just eight years. By 1992, it was the epicenter of international involvement in the Balkans Crisis, and soon thereafter became the home of an incredibly heroic achievement – the D-B Tunnel.
Long-standing internal political and ethnic rivalries in the Balkans, which had been exploited and exacerbated by external forces (everyone from the Ottoman Empire and the Nazis to NATO) for years, came to a boiling point in the former nation of Yugoslavia in the late 1980’s. These factors, compounded by financial hardship, created an atmosphere in which an autocratic and manipulative leader, Slobodan Milosovic, could rise to power. He brought with him a vision of an ethnically pure “Greater Serbia” which would have excluded large portions – the ethnically Catholic and Muslim ones – of the former Yugoslavian population. His leadership drove Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to secede from Yugoslavia. These acts were met with aggression in a series of wars known now collectively as The Yugoslav Wars.
In the Bosnian theater of these wars, Sarajevo, a lively “ski city” high in the conifer-enshrouded Dinaric Alps, fell siege to Serbian troops in April of 1992. Because Milosovic had been planning this action for some time, Bosnian Serbs and Serbian troops were already strategically located above the city when the siege began, enabling them to both effectively cut off all routes in and out of the city and successfully fire upon the city below. Bosnians in the city retreated to their basements where they spent the better part of the next four years surviving on meager food and water rations.
They never surrendered, however; and, better than that, they accomplished something out of a Medieval tale. They dug a tunnel.
Beginning in late 1992, 130 people began to excavate a passage beneath the Sarajevo Airport runway. This narrow strip of land had been seized by the UN as a neutral territory or “free zone” shortly after the siege began. Now called Tunel Spasa, or “Tunnel of Life,” the passage’s code name during the war was “D-B” for “Dobringa-Butmir,” the two communities on either side of the tunnel, one of which was under siege while the other was free. All 800 meters of the tunnel were dug with pick axes and hand tools, and the job was completed within four months with work going on twenty-four hours a day. The space that was created is one meter wide and 1.6 meters high – which means most people needed to stoop to go through it. With no ventilation in the tunnel, users needed to wear masks, at times underground water would reach waist-deep levels, requiring long, cold sections of wading.
Three to four thousand people per day transited the tunnel, in both directions. Each family was allowed to send someone through once per month to procure food and other survival supplies. The Bosnian army brought in munitions donated by outside sources or purchased on the black market. Both Bosnian and UN soldiers used the passage as a way to move troops, and electricity and oil were conducted in the tunnel’s final incarnation. Even newspapers and information moved through this space, making the D-B tunnel Sarajevo’s main conduit to the outside world while Serbian troops continued to shell the city day after day.
Ironically enough, more than one Bosnian told us that they miss the siege years. Yes, they were living underground without electricity, heat, or, in many cases, running water. Yes, they were low on food, and bullets and mortars were flying around them daily. And yes, they were completely lacking in all forms of external diversion. But they were working together, focusing on community, and supporting each other through hardship. Families were tight, and they created entertainment in whatever way they could. For FOUR years.
Now they have everything back – overstocked supermarkets, high-speed internet, Hollywood movies, and espresso bars – and at least one woman said she felt disconnected from everyone again.
Somehow I feel like this tells me an awful lot about the human soul – what it needs, what it thrives on, and what, if necessary, it can live without. The building of the tunnel alone is a clear statement of what’s important to these hearts of ours: survival yes, but not just of the individual, but rather of the community – in body and in spirit.
The siege did eventually come to an end, albeit far later than it should have. As we all may remember from the news in the early 1990’s, the international community was very hesitant to embroil itself in this conflict. Milosovic’s crafty packaging of the crisis as a “civil war” rather than an international conflict (or a genocide, as it has since been called) helped to forestall international intervention. All the while, however, Bosnians continued to bring in munitions through the D-B Tunnel, and at some point had enough firepower to begin fighting back. When they allied themselves with the neighboring Croatian population who had been fighting the same enemy for the same reasons, the tide shifted. It began to look like the combined Bosnian/Croatian forces might actually defeat Milosovic’s army. At the same time, the UN had started to impose cease fires in Sarajevo. One of them was blatantly violated when Serb forces fired on the historic Markale Market in February of 1995, killing sixty-eight people. As a result, the UN requested that NATO begin air strikes. These continued intermittently until the Serbs massacred more people at the Markale Market in August, turning the international community decisively against them. The UN and NATO demanded an end to the siege, and their increased military efforts forced the Serbs to the bargaining table.
The war was ostensibly ended with the Dayton Agreement, a treaty directed by Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher and put into effect in November of 1995. This accord partitioned the former Yugoslavian nation into individual countries along ethnic lines. The tiny new nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina itself was divided into two parts, one for the Orthodox Christian Serbs, the other for the ethnically Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats. Instead of intermingling and cohabitating like they did before, they are now divided by ethnically-established territorial lines, like Jews and Arabs in Palestine.
I’m afraid that this strategy of superpowers facilitating “peace” by drawing lines is working about as well in the Balkans as it has been in the Middle East.
Bosnia has a reported unemployment rate of 46%, although some believe that with the amount of illegal work that exists, a more realistic statistic would be in the 20% range. The government is headed by three presidents – one Bosniak (the new term for Bosnian Muslims), one Serb, and one Croat, who take turns in eight-month shifts as the principal decision-maker. There are over twenty political parties, and corruption and graft are rampant. Perhaps most significantly, not one person I met had a positive – or even neutral – opinion of their country’s leadership or future. There’s a pervasive impression throughout the former Yugoslavian lands that the war may have made matters worse, that all politicians are inherently corrupt, and that the current peace is a very touchy one. By drawing boundaries around people and lands, ethnicity and religion have become more a part of people’s identity than they were in the recent past, and there’s some evidence that more radical Muslim groups are coming to live in the city in an effort to establish footholds there.
I’m not sure what the future holds for Bosnia or any of its new neighbors, but I’m concerned. I love the diversity of the world’s cultures, religions, languages, and ethnicities; after all, encountering and understanding them is part of why I explore in the first place. But I don’t love diversity when it transmutes into division – when it turns into “us vs. them” and “tribe above all.”
At the same time, I’m encouraged when I hear that not all Bosnians have foresaken their original vision of a plural culture, even after having gone through a four-year siege. For each angry and vindictive interview with a Bosnian that I encounter, there’s another that says, “we were living together in peace before this, and we will go back to living together in peace after.”
On the last morning of my time in Sarajevo, I went for a run through the gray city streets in a semi-drizzle, seeing graffiti and bullet holes all around me and thinking that my surroundings felt more than a little bit bleak. Just a few blocks from the hotel, I spotted a large mural in a side alley which stopped me in my tracks. The mural depicted the city in bright colors, with beautiful clear mountains and skies surrounding intact, well-organized buildings. It did not reflect my experience of the city at all, but I was heartened to know that someone saw Sarajevo in this light.
I have no idea if the artist painted her interpretation of her hometown in the present or her dream for its future. I’m not sure if it matters.
There was hope in it.