The Tunnel That Saved Bosnia

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by Robert Isenberg

In the aftermath of the Cold War, Bosnia became a red-hot battleground teetering on the edge of destruction—until one man and his family dug their countrymen to freedom.

In 1990, Communism was falling apart. The Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, Eastern European nations were peeking out from behind the Iron Curtain, and people were literally dancing on the remains of the Berlin Wall. But the end of the Cold War wasn't all blue jeans and Bruce Springsteen. In some parts of the world, Communism was preserving order in extremely volatile areas. This was especially true in Yugoslavia, a federation of Slavic peoples—including Serbians, Bosnians, Croats, Albanians, and Macedonians—created after World War II.

When the Communist government in Yugoslavia fell in 1990, war broke out along ethnic lines. Primarily, that meant the Serbs fighting the Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians. The war crimes perpetrated by the Serbs against the Bosnians were so brutal that the United Nations declared them genocide in 1992.

At the center of all this madness was the picturesque Bosnian city of Sarajevo.

Filled with gorgeous alpine mountains and graceful valleys, Sarajevo had wowed the world in 1984 when it hosted the Winter Olympics. [Image Credit]

For decades, Sarajevo had served as an important example of Bosnians living together peacefully with Serbs and Croats. But all of that ended on April 5, 1992. Serbian tanks rolled across Bosnia and opened fire on Sarajevo. Then the Croatian army, which also wanted control of the city, did the same. Suddenly, Sarajevo's citizens were being attacked from all sides. It was the beginning of a disastrous four-year siege."¨"¨

Tunnel Vision

As bombs rained down on Sarajevo, Serb snipers hid in the hills while Serb tanks blocked every road leading out of the city. The people of Sarajevo were trapped and starving, living in their basements and rationing their last cans of food. The city would have fallen if not for one man—Bajro Kolar.

Kolar was a typical middle-class family man living in Butmir, a tiny community in the Sarajevo suburb of Ilidža. His house had the strategic advantages of being beyond Serb lines, as well as being close to the Sarajevo airport, which made it perfect for hoarding fresh supplies. When the Bosnian army approached him with the idea of building a tunnel from his cellar into a garage in Sarajevo, Kolar didn't hesitate to say yes.

In early 1993, Kolar, his wife, his son, and about 200 soldiers began burrowing through nearly 2,500 feet of soil—digging every inch by hand. The tunnel was less than 5 feet high, so miners had to crouch low with their picks and shovels. They reinforced the walls with wood and steel beams, like an old-fashioned coal mine, and even laid a railway track on the floor. Working in eight-hour shifts, the diggers completed the tunnel that July.

Saving a City

The Sarajevo Tunnel was the Trojan Horse of the Bosnian War. Historians estimate that more than 1 million trips were taken through the shaft, allowing the import of about 20 million tons of food. Machine guns and crates of ammunition also flowed through the Tunnel, helping the Bosnian army defend itself against the well-armed Serbs.

There was nothing romantic about the Tunnel, though. Dark, dirty, and cold, the passage was so narrow and crowded that a one-way trip could take as long as two hours. And the constant explosions outside vibrated through the walls and threatened the support beams. It was miraculous that no part of the passage ever collapsed.

Among those who passed through the tunnel was Alija Izetbegović, then-president of Bosnia. For the sake of his country, Izetbegović needed to make appearances on both sides of the Serb lines, and the Tunnel was the only dependable route. But it wasn't easy. At one point, Izetbegović was wheelchair-bound, and he had to roll through the corridor on its primitive railway tracks.

When the war ended, the Tunnel's story became international news, and the Kolars were showered with honors. Today, the house serves as a museum, and it's easy to find. The locals eagerly give directions, and taxis and tour buses make regular visits. While the Western press has given the landmark many names—the Tunnel of Life, the Tunnel of Hope—in Bosnia, all you have to say is Tunnel (pronounced TOO-nell), and everyone knows what you're talking about.

This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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