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Sarajevo War Tunnel & Museum

  
  (unguided)    (guided)  - darkometer rating:  5 -

Sarajevo war tunnel museumA short stretch of the tunnel which was dug under the airport during the siege of Sarajevo to get supplies into the cut-off city. A museum about the tunnel, with photos, various objects, newspaper clippings and a short film complement the main artefact that is the tunnel itself. Guided tours provide valuable background information.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
More background info: When Sarajevo fell under siege by Serbian forces in 1992 the city became cut off from all supplies from the outside world. So how did the Sarajevans survive the almost four years of isolation? One lifeline was the airport, whose use the UN had negotiated with the Serbs to fly in humanitarian aid. As far as food was concerned, that was indeed the main source of supplies for the citizens of Sarajevo. However, other supplies, such as weapons and ammunition, but also fuel and electricity, were made available through the tunnel.

The airport bordered on to free Bosnian territory, so to get there, crossing the airstrip was necessary – which was both dangerous (because of sniper fire) and not encouraged by the UN forces (who didn't want to jeopardize their deal with the Serbs for using the airport). So the Bosnian army decided to dig a tunnel under the airport. This would then connect the district of Dobrinja on the city side of the airport with the suburb of Butmir on the other side, from where access to free Bosnian territory was possible. The names of the two suburbs also gave the tunnel its "official" name: Tunel D-B. On the Butmir side, the exit of the tunnel was at the house of the Kolar family, who these days run the museum, and whose male members of military age were in the Bosnian army at the time.

The tunnel project was in fact a proper army job, and after teams of diggers worked their way along underground in three shifts 24 hours a day for three months, the tunnel was completed in the summer of 1993. It may have been a narrow and fragile lifeline, but the ca. 800 yards long and on average little over one and a half yards high tunnel was to prove vital for Sarajevo over the next two years. Not only could more food supplies reach the city's citizens, the defenders of the city also gained access to military supplies that way (which the UN, obviously, would not provide).
  
Later, a high-voltage electricity cable was laid through the tunnel, and also a pipeline for pumping oil to the besieged city. This, in turn, made the tunnel even more dangerous, though – esp. as it was also prone to flooding, esp. until more powerful drainage pumps could be installed. So sometimes the men carrying supplies through the tunnel had to wade through deep water, with a high-voltage power cable just overhead and a pipeline full of flammable liquid next to it. Luckily, it all went well.

After the war, with the tunnel no longer being maintained, it quickly became derelict and mostly flooded and collapsed. But on the Butmir side, the Kolar family decided to preserve a short section of the tunnel and built a museum around it, as a memorial to the incredible feat that the tunnel was. Strangely, it remained a private undertaking with no government support – and even under threat of being closed down and/or superseded by a state memorial.

Today, however, it looks rather safe – if the recent-looking shiny plaque outside is anything to go by – this reads: "The Sarajevo War Tunnel – House of the Kolar family – Salvation during the war – Memory for peace". In any case, the site has become part of many tourists' sightseeing itinerary ... not just dedicated dark tourists – it's almost part of the mainstream these days. So it is without any doubt the No. 1 individual dark tourism site in Sarajevo today.

As it is, on the other hand, still a bit scant on the informational side, it is recommended that you combine it with a visit to the siege exhibition in the History Museum in the city.
 
 
What there is to see: The main attraction is, obviously enough, the stretch of tunnel itself which has been preserved/reconstructed. But before you go in you are first sat down on benches and shown a (ca. 20 minute) film, which has two parts: footage from the siege (e.g. shelling of houses, even snipers at "work"), and the construction and use of the tunnel (partly re-enacted). Some people complain that the film feels too amateurish – but come on, this at least is real, not Hollywood!

Walking through the 25 yards of tunnel isn't too claustrophobic an experience (nowhere near as much so as in the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam!), although taller people will have to bend down a bit. You have to use your imagination to get a feeling for what it must have been like walking the entire 800 yards with heavy backpacks and even wading through knee-deep water … Today's visitors are back out in the open after just a minute or two.

If you're on a guided tour, you will also be given all manner of background information by a live guide, which is very worthwhile, as the artefacts on display may not all be self-explanatory, and textual background info is very scant. There are two exhibition rooms inside the house, one with artefacts such as grenades, improvised cooking implements, uniforms, flags, medals and a wall with photos of visitors (including some famous names – e.g. Michael Moore and various actors) above the guest book. The other room has photos and another screen for showing (independent) visitors the intro film.

In the open-air part of the museum there are more artefacts, including digging equipment, and one of the little railway trolleys used in the tunnel for transporting heavier goods. On a wall there are more photos of Sarajevo during the war, and opposite a collection of framed newspaper cuttings about the museum, in various languages, including the odd bit in English too (otherwise it's Bosnian, Dutch, German, etc. – no translations provided). You can buy DVD copies of films/documentaries and a brochure about the tunnel and the museum, self-produced by the Kolar family, is available in a range of languages.
 
 
Location: In the south-western Sarajevo suburb of Butmir, on the other side of the airport, at an address that has been renamed accordingly: uliza Tuneli, at No. 1
 
Google maps locator: [43.8197,18.3373]
   
 
Access and costs: not easy independently, but cheap – or easy but more expensive by guided tour.
 
Details: the tunnel museum is way out of town! It is theoretically possible to get there independently, by first taking the tram line 3 to the terminus at Ilidza and either walking the ca. 2 miles (along Butmirska cesta, keeping to the left where the road forks, and then turning left into Minska/Plavi-put which will become Tuneli) or getting a taxi. You could also take a taxi from the city centre all the way.

But if you're prepared to pay for the full taxi fare, then you could just as well go on the organized guided tours offered by the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) in the city centre (their office is on Zelenih Beretki at No. 22a). These run twice daily, at 11 a.m. and at 2 p.m., last two hours and, when I went in 2009, cost ca. 12 EUR per person (most likely more now; back then there was a three persons minimum for the tour to go ahead – although at least at the height of the tourist season it will rather be a problem to secure a seat on the max 20-seater bus, so better sign up for a tour early).

It may be more expensive than going independently, but the added value is considerable, and the price does not only include transport and guide but also the admission fee at the museum. The guide can really bring the tunnel museum to life – you get more out of it that way than going independently. The advantage of going independently would only be that you could spend as much time at the site as you like, but you'd lose out on the stories and comments. When I went on such a tour I found it wholly worthwhile.

If you decide to go independently – without a guide – then you'll have to pay the admission fee to the museum of 10 KM (ca. 5 EUR – as of May 2017). You may need to ring the doorbell to be let in, if nobody else is already visiting at the time.
 
Opening hours: daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
 
  
Time required: The guided tour that departs from and returns to the Tourist Information in the centre of town takes ca. two hours in total, with roughly half of that spent at the tunnel museum itself, including a verbal introduction by the guide, viewing of the film and walking through the preserved stretch of tunnel (which itself takes only a minute) … I would have liked a little more time at the museum. However, on balance, you get more out of it with a guide thanks to the stories and explanations. The museum on its own tells you less.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see Sarajevo – if you go on the guided Sarajevo Tunnel Tour, the guide will also point out various war ruins and other points of interest along the way (though not as many as the leaflet promises – for instance, we did pass the Jewish cemetery as promised but without any comment from the guide … had I not noticed it myself, and visited it on a separate occasion, I wouldn't have known).
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Sarajevo
 
  
 
  • Sarajevo war tunnel 1Sarajevo war tunnel 1
  • Sarajevo war tunnel 2Sarajevo war tunnel 2
  • Sarajevo war tunnel 3Sarajevo war tunnel 3
  • Sarajevo war tunnel 4Sarajevo war tunnel 4
  • Sarajevo war tunnel 5Sarajevo war tunnel 5
  

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