Our train ride to Sarajevo was pretty epic. I was immediately glad we hadn’t biked that portion since there were mountains upon mountains along the way. Sarajevo was the host city for the 1984 Winter Olympics after all, and you can’t host Winter Olympics without big mountains. Our train must have passed through almost a hundred tunnels during the two-hour trip. It was very scenic and beautiful, best viewed from a train window.



As we left the train station in Sarajevo, we immediately came across a modern fortress. There were high grey walls and cameras everywhere. Signs on the lawn forbade picture-taking. Soon we saw guards armed with assault rifles, and we wondered what could be beyond the walls. We didn’t have to wonder long since I soon spotted the American flag snapping in the breeze. “The American Embassy?” I asked Mike. “No way, it’s too big.” It was the embassy, though. The Americans have a sprawling, intimidating complex in Sarajevo. It is far better fortified than the government buildings of BiH. Go ‘murica!

One of the embassy's walls. Don't tell them we took a picture!

One of the embassy’s walls. Don’t tell them we took a picture!

Our main objective for the day was to learn more about Sarajevo’s wore-torn history. We focused on the 1992-1995 siege, though we also saw the bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, beginning WWI.

Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on this bridge in 1914, starting WWI.

Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on this bridge in 1914, starting WWI.

We took an organized tour for once, and I’m glad we did. Our guide was a young woman who was six during the siege. We took a half hour mini bus ride out of the city to the Tunnel Museum. She talked along the way.

We passed Markale Market where a 1995 massacre (and graphic video footage thereof) finally triggered a NATO intervention. We passed a children’s memorial. We saw the Holiday Inn where journalists holed up during the siege. We drove through Sniper Alley where Bosnian Serbs picked off countless Sarajevans.

When passing through Sniper Alley, our guide told us that it was so deadly that nobody would dare cross it during the day. At night, however, some would attempt to cross in their cars at 200mph with their headlights off, so many people died in car accidents as well. According to her, the snipers would often shoot not to kill but to draw out other victims. They would shoot someone in the legs so that they could kill anyone trying to save him.

Finally we arrived at the Tunnel Museum. During the first year of the siege, the people of Sarajevo were effectively cut off from the outside world. Many were starving and losing hope. They then managed to hand dig a tunnel under the airport to connect with friendly territory. The tunnel was 800m long. It wasn’t even tall enough to stand up in. It exited through an old woman’s house and therefore managed to escape detection until it was already well protected later in the war. The tunnel brought supplies into the city and wounded people out. It gave the people hope and provided them with the tools of resistance.


Map depicting the siege of Sarajevo.

Map depicting the siege of Sarajevo.

The tunnel is so low that even Mike and I couldn't stand up straight.

The tunnel is so low that even Mike and I couldn’t stand up straight.

Unfortunately, it also fostered corruption. Because the Sarajevans were desperate for supplies, they were willing to pay high prices for items. War profiteers jacked up the prices and pocketed small fortunes. Our guide claims that many of these corrupt military leaders are government officials today.

We learned so much more during the tour, too. Our guide remembers her family creating their own victory garden in their yard. They grew much of their food and raised animals. When her rabbit ate the spinach one day, it became stew the next, and she didn’t speak to her mother for a week. Her mother sold jewelry and anything valuable for the simplest supplies. They burned tires to heat their home.

It was clear that she was dismayed by international reaction to the siege. She marveled at how a country “right in the middle of Europe, not in Africa or Asia somewhere” could be ignored. She says that the U.S. wanted to intervene early but that France vetoed the action out of fear of starting WWIII. “NATO” stands for “No Action, Talk Only,” according to Sarajevans.

She also told us about the current political system, which she clearly loathes. The treaty that ended the conflict resulted in a bizarre arrangement. BiH has three presidents, three parliaments, essentially three governments that can’t agree on anything. It’s crippling their recovery and economic growth potential. The three governments are also very much tied up in religion, with one representing Catholics, one representing Orthodox Christians, and one representing Muslims. This is why we have separation of church and state, y’all.

At the airport she mentioned an anecdote featuring a cow. Someone paid to have a cow brought through the tunnel, but it didn’t fit (seriously, the tunnel is quite small). The people covered it with a white sheet and painted NATO in blue lettering on the side and sent it running across the airport grounds. Nobody knew what the hell it was, so it reached the other side safely and was dinner within an hour.

As Arizonans, we found one of her jokes to be a bit over-dramatic:

Q: What’s the difference between hell and Mostar?

A: Two degrees, and you’d be better off in hell.

Obviously, Mostar (at a couple of hours away and a lower elevation) is actually quite a bit warmer than the former winter Olympics capital, but it’s hard to take such hyperbole seriously when our summer temps frequently top 110.

After our tour wrapped up, we walked around the city for a while,and then headed back to our AirBnB for the night. Our train back to Mostar left fairly early the next morning, so our side trip was less than 24 hours, but it was definitely worth it!


So many of the buildings in Sarajevo show the scars of the war.

So many of the buildings in Sarajevo show the scars of the war.

Some buildings have been repaired, but many wrecks still stand.

Some buildings have been repaired, but many wrecks still stand.

P.S. I always think of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s song “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24” when I hear the city’s name. I looked up the song’s history to see what the connection was and learned that the song was inspired by Vedran Smailovic, the “Cellist of Sarajevo.” The accomplished musician played at many funerals and often played in the rubble of destroyed buildings during the siege. According to Paul O’Neill, founder of TSO, “The song basically wrapped itself around him. We used some of the oldest Christmas melodies we could find, like ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Carol of the Bells’ as part of the medley (which is from Ukraine, near that region). The orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, and the single cello represents that single individual, that spark of hope.”

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