The Tunnel of Hope
The airport of Sarajevo is on our right. We can see the planes a couple of a hundred meters away from us. We made it to the destination that I have heard so much about since I was a little girl. The tunnel of hope; we made it to the tunnel of hope.
Today, this tunnel is a tourist attraction. Everyone who passes by Sarajevo makes sure to come by. During the war, Sarajevo was surrounded by the Serb and Croat armies. Nor people nor supplies could enter or exit the city. The UN decided it would throw packages of food and clothing from the air space above. But even that, the Serb army wouldn’t allow the Bosnians to have to themselves. The Serbs made an agreement with the UN that they would only allow for these supplies to be delivered to the people of Sarajevo, under one condition: That the Serb Army take half the supplies and give the Bosnians the other half. The siege continued for three years; the people of Sarajevo grew hungry, their clothing had worn out, the sick had no medicine to treat their wounds.
Bosnians are fighters, I know that. I can see it in their faces to this day.
To save the city from dying, the people of Sarajevo built a tunnel under the grounds of the airport. It started here, under the house of an old woman. 800 meters long, 1.6 meters high, and 1 meter wide, it ended just outside the city in another house like the one we are standing in now. This was the only way they hoped the Serbs would not find out about the tunnel.
During the siege this tunnel was used to bring supplies of food, medicine and clothing into Sarajevo. It was used to take the wounded and the sick outside of the city which eventually had no electricity and no water.
I cannot explain how it feels to be standing here in this old woman’s house. There is a lump in my throat and I cannot seem to be able to let out a single word. I cannot express to her the amount of reverence I carry towards her. The old woman’s body is weak now and her face is wrinkled, but her eyes show the strength of a thousand soldiers. I bent down and kissed her hand. She is a warrior too.
She risked her own family’s safety by allowing the tunnel to start from her house. The Serbs eventually discovered the tunnel, and every day people were killed here, right where I stand.
With the rest of the group, I went into what still remains of the tunnel. I looked under my feet and saw a railway that was used to push carts of supplies on. Sometimes these carts carried the wounded too. I touched the wooden slabs on the walls of the tunnel. The wood had stopped the soil from toppling in, I put my hands where it happened and it all came back.
Many of the Bosnian refugees I had met when I was a young girl had passed through this tunnel. I had heard their frightening stories of how they made their way through the dark, damp underground passageway in hope of freedom. I woke up to night mares when I was six years old. In my sleep, I was with them, running away from the Serbs, I could hear the shot guns and the bombs on the ground above. But I had to keep running in that dark, tight tunnel. I was afraid that they would catch me, but I had to keep running. I could feel my legs getting weaker and weaker, but I had to keep running. I could see men with no legs and no arms. I could see young boys and girls crying for their lost fathers and mothers. I wanted to stop and cry with them too but we all had to keep running.
We are in Sarajevo, the city I had longed to visit throughout my life. People who know me well, have definitely heard me say, “I want to visit Sarajevo.” Someone once told me, “You’ll make it there one day.”
It felt quite surreal to be finally entering this historic city. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were murdered on the infamous bridge here in Sarajevo; the incident that sparked the beginning of World War I. In 1984, the whole world assembled here for the Olympic Winter Games, one of the most magnificent Olymics in history. This city witnessed many important battles when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, during the 16th century and into the 19th. Finally, in 1992 Sarajevo became the longest besieged city in world history.
As soon as we entered the city, we headed towards the graveyard where the late President Alija Izzet Begovic is buried along with thousands of soldiers who died as martyrs during the war. It was a sunny day; the grass was green across the hills and flowers were blossoming with color. It could have been a very pretty site; for as far as our eyes could take us, we saw lucent white slabs with fine Arabic and Latin script, neatly dug into a carpet of greenery and blossoms of color. Looking more closely at the engravings however, we read names and years; the grave reality was unescapable. The journey between many of the birth and death dates on the white slabs were so short . Many of these men were younger than myself I realized. We had stood ourselves in a half circle around Begovic’s grave and put our hands together to read الفاتحة and a small prayer for the heroes. It was a solemn moment and the air seemed to stand still and heavy upon our shoulders as we recited holy words from the Qur’an and Hadith.
After we packed ourselves back into the van, we were on what seemed like an endless spin. We drove in an upward circle until we finally came to a halt and Abosondos shouted, “Get out everyone!”
The scene was breathtaking. We stood above the whole city and I could now understand how Sarajevo was besieged during the war. Below us in a deep valley lay the city with the Milijaka River running through it; it was surrounded by the towering Dinaric Alps from every corner.
“The Serbs stood with their snipers on these mountains,” said our group leader as he pointed with is finger and twirled around himself in a full 360 degree spin. “For three years, people could not get in or out of the city except through the tunnel of hope,” he reminded us.
I could have spent the rest of the day just sitting on top of that hill, looking beyond the green mountain tops and down into the valley. I don’t think I would have felt time pass; Sarajevo is a beautiful city indeed.
Not only is Sarajevo a city of natural beauty, it is also a cradle for several historical eras, cultures and faiths. As we drove along the roads taking us from the new city to the old, we passed by buildings of different styles and architecture. The new city has a clear European imprint. The older buildings are of magnificent Victorian architecture, like the National Museum and the School of Art and Dance. The newer buildings are quite dull however and as I pass them by, I feel that I have travelled back in time into Soviet Russia. Although I’ve never been to Russia, the novels I’ve read and movies I’ve watched make me feel that if I ever were to visit this country, I would find many similarities between it and this part of Bosnia that I am seeing now. We passed by a block of tall apartment buildings; their plainness, lack of beauty and elegance and bold practicality are overwhelmingly sullen.
Sarajevo still bares the scars of the war. More than any other city we’ve been through so far, bullet and shrapnel holes are everywhere; they still decorate all the buildings. “There it is, Holiday Inn,” someone shouted in the car while pointing at a hotel as we drove. On our left was the yellow and white Holiday Inn, which was brutally bombed and lit on fire during the war. Flashbacks from TV news reports, nearly 20 years back, rushed through my head. It was surprising to me that I could still remember seeing this hotel in flames; it was so long ago. Today, Holiday Inn still stands, and the bullet holes and damage is quite visible on its edifice. I wonder if the owners have decided to keep this memory alive for their visitors.
Walking in the old city, was like walking through a story book. The cobble stone on the footpaths, the small Ottoman style buildings, the authentic feel to the city centre was a dreamy experience. We visited a big cathedral and then we went to the a synagogue built by one of the Ottoman sultans to provide for the city’s Jewish citizens. They were preparing for a concert later that evening so we could not visit. The mosque was peaceful and pretty inside; it resembled the mosques of Istanbul a lot. We made friends with some Bosnian girls who spoke Arabic quite fluently. They helped me buy a traditional pair of harem trousers and a copper coffee set for my mother.
The shops are small and they sell old fashioned clothes. Vendors insist on talking to me in Turkish, assuming that I am one of the many Turkish students studying in Sarajevo. Most of the covered women in the city center are Turks studying at the University of Sarajevo because of the Hijab ban at public universities in Turkey. Turks and Bosnians can enter each others’ countries without a visa, one of the reflections of the tight relations between the two countries.
The sun is now setting and the dim lights of the wooden sebil/fountain built by the Ottomans in the Bascarija Square are beginning to become clearer. I am sipping at another cup of Bosnian kafa and I can hear Bosnian music in the background. I am at a crossroads of several civilisations, histories, religions and cultures. The richness of this moment will stay in my heart forever.
As we entered Mostar, maybe the third largest city in Bosnia, we were greeted by a huge cross on top of one of the mountains. It stood there overlooking the whole city below and giving a very powerful statement, “This city is still Christian.” As we drove through the city, I saw many churches and mosques built side by side. It reminded me of driving through Abbassia, Cairo. It seemed to me that religion was a fierce denominator in the demography of this city.
I walked through the old city until I came to Mostar Bridge. This bridge holds an important story. It was built in the 16th century by the Ottomans, connecting the two sides of the city. The city is named after this bridge; Mostar comes from Stari Most or Old Bridge. During the war, this bridge was destroyed. After the war, UNESCO funded a 12 million Euro project to rebuild the 1,088 stones of the bridge to their original form. The bridge was reopened in 2004.
A photo museum had been dedicated to the bridge. I walked past the dated photos and let them tell me the story. I stared at the first photo dated June 1992. The first bomb had ripped off a significant portion of the bridge. It made me tear as I wandered past the pictures and saw the bridge fall, bit by bit, in front of my eyes. In the last photo the whole city had turned from a sunkissed green oasis into a grey, destructed piece of abandoned land.
We had been to another waterfall called Kravic. Then we stopped to pray in the mosque of another Ottoman fortress called Pocitelj. It was dark by the time we arrived and so we could not really appreciate much of it. The boys ran into a little coffee shop and tried to follow the remainder of the match. I think Germany was winning.
We spent the night in an old Ottoman house. The house belongs to an aristocratic family of Hungarian origin, called Velagic. They have maintained a complex of 7 houses as well as the surrounding lands and streams that run through them for over 400 years. Semir, the young man who owns the house we are staying at, had been talking to us for two hours now about tourism in Bosnia. He stood at the door as he left us to go to sleep. “I will bring you honey from our bee hives for breakfast in the morning.”