War Tourism Flourishes in Bosnian Capital

November 29, 2016
As official figures show tourist numbers rising in Bosnia and Herzegovina, conflict-themed attractions in Sarajevo like the War Hostel and Tunnel of Hope show that the 1992-95 siege continues to fascinate visitors.
A damaged grave at the old Jewish cemetery. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

Amid a boom in tourist numbers in Bosnia, the country’s wartime history has continued to attract and fascinate visitors, according to owner of Sarajevo’s War Hostel Arijan Kurbasic.

The War Hostel has recently captured media attention for offering an immersive experience simulating living conditions during the siege of Sarajevo, which ran from April 1992 to February 1996 as Bosnian Serb forces surrounded the city, bombarding civilians and cutting off supply lines.

At the hostel, the host – who goes by the code name Zero One – greets guests in a military uniform.

Rooms are lit by light bulbs run on car batteries, and a tape plays background sounds of bombs falling all night long.

The hostel, described by one traveller on the reviews site Tripadvisor as “like nothing I’d ever come across”, opened in June last year and during the summer months this year was “pretty full”, said Kurbasic.

Official statistics show that in the first nine months of 2016, there were 1,896,915 overnight stays by tourists in Bosnia – a 10.8 percent increase on the same period in 2015.

The topic of Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995 – which fits into the genre of so-called ‘dark tourism’ – is a significant draw, particularly for visitors from English-speaking countries. 

Kurbasic said this strand of tourism had grown over time due to greater awareness and openness about the topic.

“The more time passes, the easier it gets for people to talk about it,” Kurbasic told BIRN.

According to Kurbasic, to avoid giving subjective impressions, a tour operator must be thoroughly informed and avoid assigning blame.

“Otherwise you’re just talking pain, you’re not talking education,” he said, adding: “I don’t blame anybody.”

Sarajevo’s Historic Museum, amongst others, features an exhibit about the siege, and the War Childhood Museum set to open in December will also display stories from the war told through personal objects and testimonies. 

But sites of interest are not limited to institutions and galleries, since plaques around the city mark important spots, and the scars of the siege are still easily visible on many buildings around the capital.

The Old Jewish Cemetery

From the old Jewish cemetery, there’s a clear view over the old front line of the war. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

Sarajevo’s Jewish cemetery, the second-largest of its kind in Europe, is perched part-way up Mount Trebevic.

Its vantage point over the front line meant that during the war it was used as an artillery position by Bosnian Serbs. 

Through the gates is a clear view to the Holiday Inn – where foreign journalists holed up during the siege – and the parliament building, which was famously pictured in flames after being hit by tank fire.

This cemetery, which serves as the final resting place for the 17th-century first rabbi of Sarajevo, was not demined until 1998.

A report written by a sergeant from the NATO-led stabilisation force, SFOR, said 15 mines were discovered in the cemetery in the first few days of work alone.

Plaque for Nina

 The plaque commemorates 12-year-old Nina, who died toward the end of the siege. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

Nina Zeljkovic was 12 when she was hit by a grenade near her home in August 1995. She died on September 2, making her one of the last of more than 1,000 children killed in the siege. The diary she kept up until her death became the basis for a novel by Peter Munch, reporter for German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung

A plaque was placed in one of Sarajevo’s narrow residential side-streets by her family. It says: “Dear Nina, on this street you went to school and from this street you went in eternal peace. You will live in our minds.”

Commemorating Mladic

The plaque commemorating Ratko Mladic’s war efforts. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

This plaque, in the Vraca neighbourhood above Sarajevo, on territory that lies inside the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, was put up in June 2014 by a union of war veterans from Eastern Sarajevo. 

It reads: “In this place, on May 19, 1992, the commander of the Republika Srpska Army Main Headquarters, Ratko Mladic, mustered two battalions of self-organised people from the Novo Sarajevo municipality.”

The plaque, written in Cyrillic. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

 Mladic has been on trial before UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague since 2012, charged with terrorising the population of Sarajevo during the siege, amongst other things.

Sarajevo Mayor Ivo Komsic issued a statement after the plaque was raised, calling Mladic a “war criminal” and saying that it sent a “bad message”.  

Resin Roses

 A resin-filled “rose”, where a mortar fell during the war. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

Craters still scar the streets of Sarajevo, formed by the impact of mortar rounds.

Marks from explosions that resulted in deaths were famously filled with red resin by artists and called ‘Sarajevo roses’. 

Estimates suggest that on average, 300 shell rounds were fired into the city per day during the war.

More than 35,000 buildings were destroyed during the siege and over 11,000 people were killed.

Some ‘roses’ have been removed recently, replaced by fresh asphalt.

This one, in front of the BBI shopping centre close to a monument to children killed in the siege, has so far been preserved.

Suada and Olga’s Bridge

Memorial to the first victims of the siege of Sarajevo. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

Suada Dilberovic, a 23-year-old Croatian studying medicine in Sarajevo, and Olga Sucic, a 34-year-old civil servant, were attending a peaceful protest on Vrbanja Bridge on April 5, 1992, when they were shot dead by Serb snipers.

They are considered the first Sarajevo victims of the siege, and this plaque is in their memory.

 Sarajevo’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

The stretch of land where Bosko Brkic and Admira Ismic were killed. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

On the bank next to Vrbanja Bridge is another famous site.

It was on May 19, 1993, that Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic tried to cross Vrbanja Bridge – which by then was no-man’s-land – to reach Serb-occupied territory in Grbavica.

The young couple, both 25, are known as the Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo because Ismic was a Bosnian Muslim and Brkic a Serb. 

According to a report by Kurt Schork from Reuters news agency, sources on both the Bosnian Army and Serb side acknowledged they had made agreements to let the couple pass after 4pm.

It is not known who fired the shots that killed them. 

The couple lay unmoved for eight days since it was too dangerous to recover their bodies.

The bullet-riddled building seen above has not yet been renovated.

Beef strife

The ironic monument, which commemorates out-of-date humanitarian rations. Photo: Eleanor Rose/BIRN

This monument, which has by now seen some wear and tear, was offered as an ironic thank-you from the citizens of Sarajevo for humanitarian aid products.

A humanitarian airlift to Sarajevo operated between July 3, 1993, and January 9, 1996, was the longest-running of its kind in history.

City residents, however, say the food was sometimes years out of date and tasted disgusting. 

The plaque on this sculpture, raised in 2007 and known as the ICAR Canned Beef Monument, says it is from the “grateful citizens of Sarajevo”. 

According to Reuters, Dunja Blazevic of the Centre for Contemporary Art said at the time: “The ICAR canned beef is remembered by the people of Sarajevo with disgust. Cats and dogs did not want to eat it and people had to.”

Tunnel of Hope

The Tunnel Museum from the outside, where bullet holes can still be seen. Photo: Jennifer Boyer/Flickr

The famous ‘Tunnel of Hope’ – about half a mile long – looks like an ordinary house from the outside.

But the facade hides the entrance to an underground passage dug in 1993 to link the city to Bosnian Army-held territory beyond the neutral zone of the airport, allowing food and weapons to come through, and fleeing citizens to leave.