Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tunnel of Life

I started writing about Bosnia in the car before we left the country. My emotions were so high, I had to talk about it.. well... I had to type it silently into my iphone. We were three days into a four day, 1,200 mile road trip. We started in northern Italy traveling down the Croatian coast to Split, then into Mostar and onto Sarajevo, and back into Croatia for a night in Zagreb.

I haven't read the post since I wrote it almost a month ago. A part of me was afraid writing about that day in Sarajevo would taint how incredible it was. I realized that nothing could, so here we go...

I'm talking about our search for the city's wartime tunnel.

We spent over an hour driving around the Sarajevo suburb of Butmir circling the airport for any sign of a museum. Halfway between the old town and the airport the signs seemed to just disappear. It started to feel like Groundhog's Day driving down the same bumpy roads and through bullet-scarred neighborhoods determined to see the lifeline that kept the people of Sarajevo alive during the three-and-a-half-year-long siege by Bosnian Serb forces.

We were about to give up when we passed a sign that read, "Tunnel Space" (Tunnel of life). It pointed to a house behind a short metal fence. The abandoned building next door was smothered in bullet holes, and we had a very uneasy feeling as we pulled into the deserted dirt lot. Music was playing in the garage, but no one was listening. A minute later, an Italian couple arrived in search of the same spot. They looked as confused as we were. As we exchanged stories about our search hoping to find clues to the museum's whereabouts, a Bosnian man and his son pulled up. The four of us began to scurry, trying to leave this man's property as quickly as possible. A city sign directed us here, but we felt like trespassers in very unfamiliar territory. To my surprise, he stopped us. Pointing to the bullet-filled building next door, he quietly told us that we made it. We found the tunnel.

"5 euro," he said."

Its hard to express the sense of apprehension we all had. A stranger living off a rather quiet street next to the Sarajevo airport offered to show us the tunnel's access point. There was no museum entrance. No one greeting us at the door. There was only a destroyed building that was clearly once someone's home, and this man had a key. I'm still not sure if this was once his house or how he obtained access. We all exchanged nervous looks that said, "Well... Here we go," and quickly followed him next door. The front room was cluttered, and lined with war photos and army uniforms. In the next room, a concrete stairwell led into the ground. About eight steps down, the entrance was blocked off with cement blocks and debris. He spoke little English, but told us how valuable this entrance was.

The Italians couple walked out. "This is the wrong one," she says.

We weren't so sure of that. Dug in 1993, the tunnel was the only safe land route in and out of the city. It was built in people's homes to protect those traveling through it. This had to be it. After all, it was marked with a city sign. The Bosnian man was not scamming us. This was just the other end of the tunnel - the entrance left out of the guide books.

The gentleman offered to show us the way to the other end; to the museum. He must have heard her calling his bluff. It was just a five minute drive. Down windy neighborhood roads - a couple of rights, a left, across a small bridge and around the corner - every other house was bombed out and full of holes. We would have NEVER found it ourselves. The Bosnian man pulled into a small dirt patch and pointed to the badly destroyed home to the left. Without saying a word, he waved goodbye and was on his way.

A sign on the door read, "Ring bell and wait one minute."

The claustrophobic tunnel entrance was not blocked off like the other.

Using only picks and shovels, Bosnian troops worked day and night for four months to build the 875 yards long, 3.3 feet wide and 5 feet tall tunnel under the Sarajevo airport runway. It was used as a communication channel, allowing the maneuvering of troops and supplies for the Bosnian army. A telephone line used to communicate between Sarajevo and the free territories was installed. An electricity cable and a pipeline for oil ran also through the tunnel. A wheelchair was built to transport the sick and disabled.

Everything came through the tunnel, including 4,000 people a day carrying more than 100 lbs of food, medicine and military material on their backs. Filled with courage and a hope for survival, these people ignored flooding caused by underground water and the constant shelling of Serbian snipers. Each journey through was a necessary gamble.

While we were concerned with toys and getting the perfect bike for christmas, brave Bosnian children were risking their lives to stay alive.

The tunnel museum contains 66 feet of preserved unground space, which we walked through hunched over and in shock. Also on display is a wheelchair used to transport those too weak to walk, wartime uniforms, weapons, aid packages, and a memorial list of those who lost their lives during the tunnel's operations.

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