Tunnel of Hope: A means of survival during the Sarajevo Siege

The house of the Kolar family in Sarajevo, the starting point of the Tunnel of Hope. Photo by Alem Bajramović, used with permission.

This article by Kristina Gadže was originally published on Balkan Diskurs, a project of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC). An edited version has been republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

The Siege of Sarajevo (1992–1996) was the longest siege of a capital city in modern history. The daily campaigns of shelling and sniping, targeting the civilian population, were terrible and cruel, compounded by the blockade of humanitarian aid convoys and the severance of any connection with the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the world. In an effort to survive and communicate with the outside world, Sarajevo residents dug a tunnel in the yard of the Kolar family. Stretching from the settlement of Dobrinja to that of Butmir, it was thus known as the D-B Tunnel, or the Tunnel of Hope.

The Tunnel of Hope was under the control of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) and used to distribute food, cigarettes, and weapons for defense. It linked  the city of Sarajevo, which was entirely cut off by Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), with Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the Sarajevo Airport, an area controlled by the United Nations. The tunnel went under the airport runway.

The tunnel’s construction began in April of 1993. According to curator Edis Kolar, the son of Bajro Kolar, they were aware beforehand that a tunnel would be built in their yard, but it was not publicly discussed.

Interior of the Tunnel of Hope. Photo: Alem Bajramović, used with permission.

Even though they were fighting on the frontlines, both Edis Kolar and his father went regularly to check on their house. Edis recalls that on one occasion, there were some people in front of the house, including engineer Nedžad Branković, the chief designer of the tunnel, some architects from Zenica, and Bakir Izetbegović, (son of then-president of Bosnia and Herzegovina Alija Izetbegović, who at the served as director of the Construction Institute in Sarajevo, and later become politician as well).

“I remember what Bakir said very well: ‘We need the house and land for something.’ We knew that a tunnel was being built, but it was a well-kept secret. My dad knew what he needed, so he just said, ‘Everything that’s mine is yours too,’” Edis recalls. He goes on to explain that his father worked on the team that dug the tunnel and helped with the procurement of equipment.

Two months after that visit, Edis said that people started digging by hand, taking turns. There was less shelling, however, when the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) found out about the digging of the tunnel, they launched two terrible attacks on March 17 and 18, 1993. “They demolished everything. But they still didn’t succeed,” said Edis, as the construction continued in spite of the damage.

Edis says the tunnel was of enormous importance for the citizens of Sarajevo, and, if it hadn’t been built, one could only guess what would have happened. He also emphasized that the tunnel was not built as an escape route from Sarajevo, but as an infrastructure and supply line.

A museum as a testament

Edis explains that, after they built the trenches and communication lines, the tunnel became a testament to the daily life of Sarajevo citizens, in which some married.

One of them was Edis’s friend, Elvir Spahić, who was 18 years old at the time and had been with Edis on the battlefield in the area of Treskavica. “He [Spahić] had a girlfriend from Hrasnica and we teased him about her. But one morning, Spahić said he was getting married. We laughed, but we took rifles and fired a few shots into the air, and they went through the tunnel to Sarajevo,” Edis recalled.

According to Edis, the tunnel was not used during the last month of the war since it had filled up with water. Edis and his father went home to clean it and found abandoned things, carts, and pictures. “We picked it all up and arranged it in the basement, which was empty, and that’s how the museum was created,” said Edis.

Although they cooperate with schools, the Tunnel of Hope is less often visited by students from schools from Herzegovina or the entity of Republika Srpska. Photo by Alem Bajramović, used with permission.

Inspired by the idea of preserving what was left behind, Edis searched for artifacts from that period to buy all over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even today, artifacts can be donated to the museum if citizens believe they relate to the tunnel during the Siege of Sarajevo. Edis says that, even though many humanitarian organizations came to help with the rebuilding of their house after the war, his father did not want it to be rebuilt. He wanted the house to be preserved exactly as it was.

Accessible museum content

The museum was run by Bajro and Edis Kolar until 2012, when the Sarajevo Canton Memorial Fund took over. By April 2022 they completed the reconstruction of the 130-meter tunnel, which had to be rebuilt from the ground up as it goes under the Sarajevo airport. Part of the airport runway was reconstructed in 1998, and the entire length of the pipe was filled with concrete.

“Three or four years ago, we decided to block that pipe and not go underneath the airport, but only as far as we can while staying on our land. So, boards and rails were inserted through that concrete pipe,” said Edis, explaining that the conceptual project was created by architect Selina Tanović, and an international application has been posted to support its completion.

Every year the Tunnel of Hope museum organizes workshops for blind and visually impaired children. Photo by Alem Bajramović, used with permission.

The tunnel and museum are visited by roughly 170,000 visitors each year. The content has been adapted in order to make it accessible to the blind and visually impaired, as well as to those with developmental disabilities. “Every year we organize workshops for blind and visually impaired children, together with an educator and our curator. They helped us print the guide in Braille,” said Edis.

Visitors come to see the tunnel and museum from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the region, and across the world.

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