The city of Sarajevo with a graveyard in the foreground

Place of Hope in Sarajevo

A steady drizzle falls from the sky like soft tears onto the pavement. The delicate persistence darkened the red splashes of a Sarajevo rose at my feet. This rose is a wound in the pavement created by a mortar explosion during the siege of Sarajevo. The explosions left behind craters and blast marks. Local artists and city workers filled the mortar scars with red resin, a remembrance of civilian lives lost during the siege that lasted almost four years.

From April 5th 1992 to February 29, 1996 (1,425 days) the Serbian army surrounded Sarajevo, cutting off supply lines and subjecting the city to relentless shelling and sniper fire. During that time, nearly every building in the city sustained damage, 35,000 were destroyed. The scars are visible on every street.

Marks in the pavement left behind from a mortar blast are filled in with red resin.
A Sarajevo Rose: Local artists and city workers filled the marks left by mortar blasts with red resin. This is a poignant reminder of the civilian bloodshed.

Just eight years prior to the siege, Serajevo had hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. During the siege, the Olympic ice rink became the border of Sniper’s Alley. Bullets and mortars rained, killing soldiers, civilians, and children. The once beautiful brick entry to the Olympic games is now shattered and in disrepair. The area feels like a ghost town.

The siege cut off food, gas, electric, and water supplies from 1992 to 1996. Until one family created a place of hope under their home.

From Ordinary to a Place of Hope

We entered a residential neighborhood, similar to that of almost any other city, except for the scars. The woman walking in front of us picked up a piece of litter and placed it in the trash, presumably a local who cared about where she lived. Another woman busied herself on her second-story porch hanging laundry, a porch riddled with bullet holes. Another man sat drinking coffee. A prominent crater and splay of a mortar blast carved the wall next to him. A scooter whizzed by, not even looking to the side at the black blast marks on the brick facade to his right. People going about their daily lives, the past remembered, but life continues to move forward.

An apartment building in Sarajevo with bullet holes scattered across the facade.
Despite the bullet holes riddled across the facade of the apartment building, life appeared to go on as normal.

Deep in the neighborhood, we finally reached our destination, a simple home. There was nothing special about the facade or structure aside from the wounds of war, but this house became a symbol of hope. What lies beneath it saved the lives of thousands.

The Kolar family, an ordinary family and owners of this ordinary home, did something extraordinary. What happens around us isn’t often our choice, but how we respond makes all the difference in the world.

The Kolar family home, bullet holes cover its facade
The Kolar family home. Bullet holes cover its facade.

The Place of Hope

In March 1993, nearly a year after the siege began, the Kolar family open their home to General Rašid Zorlak and the First Corps Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who entered their basement and started digging. Four months and four days later, a working tunnel extended from the Kolar home, under the airport, and to the free side of Bosnia. The tunnel began as a muddy path trodden by many feet. As time passed, they installed pipes to bring gas, water, and communication lines into the city. Eventually, they laid tracks along the length of the tunnel so that carts could push in heavy supplies.

I walked down a set of stairs and entered this tunnel. Only 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) high, and 1 meter (3.3 feet) wide, the walls and ceiling closed in, as did the damp cold like that of a deep cave.

The walk felt like a time warp. The unchanging supports and stone walls appeared endless in front of me. At the farthest point, the walls seemed to close in to a single spot of darkness. But this was hope, this was food and supplies. This was also an escape. Some estimate that 3,000 to 4,000 people used the tunnel to escape, while others brought in food and basic supplies. In addition, the tunnel facilitated the smuggling of weapons.

Today, visitors can still climb down into the cellar of the Kolar home and peer down the original entrance into the tunnel of hope, but can not enter from there. Another entrance in the backyard provides access for tourists to experience a preserved section of the tunnel. The original tunnel was about 800 meters (2,625 feet) long.

Looking down the Tunnel of Hope. Rails line the floor and pipes are attached to the wooden support beams.
Looking down the Tunnel of Hope.

How to be Extraordinary

Near the entrance to the tunnel I met Nidal, who was explaining to a group of visitor his family history. He pointed to the map showing the red siege lines and recounted how his grandmother used a medical badge that enabled her passage through the tunnel. This enabled her to smuggle in food for the family.

Map of Sarajevo with siege line in red around it. The Tunnel of Hope was dug under the airport to the free Bosnian territory.
Map from the Kolar family museum. Red line shows the siege line around Sarajevo; Snipers’ alley circled in green; The double green arrow shows the area where the tunnel was dug.

“How do you feel about your history?” one visitor asked.

“I am proud that we survived, and that we did not lose hope. The entire city was being shelled, people were dying, food was difficult to get, but still people were getting married, having babies and attending birthday parties. We had hope. Today we can order anything we want on our phones, and people are losing hope.” Nidal recounted this with a countenance that radiated happiness.

Nidal’s survival attitude stood in stark contrast to the next guide, who recounted the “fake invading army” with overwhelming bitterness. Understandably, he may have lost family, maybe even children. Bitterness and hatred are a human response to tragedy. He had reasons to be angry. Nidal’s hope and forgiveness are extraordinary.

Memories in Black and White

Two faces in black and white memorialized on a billboard.
Faces painted on walls and billboards in black and white remind us of the youth who died during this war on all sides of the conflict. The monochrome speaks of absolutes, life and death, right and wrong, all in black and white save for a rose, a symbol of love in the blood-red color that connects us.

A Very Brief History

Warning: A library of books would not be enough to explain the long complicated history of this region of the world. Below are only a few brief notes about its past, hardly enough to explain why anyone people group acted or reacted the way they did, nor will I even attempt to “explain” anyone’s actions – that can only be answered by each individual.

If you get bogged down in this section, just read the items in bold that show the major recent steps.

Ottoman Rule and Austro-Hungarian Control

The Balkans have a torrid and complicated history. From the ancient Illyrians and Thracians tribes, to the Kingdom of Serbia (and much in-between). Internal conflicts weakened the kingdoms, leaving them vulnerable to a hostile takeover from the east – the Ottomans.

The foreign Islamic Ottoman empire ruled the Balkan area for 400 years. Some claim that they showed tolerance towards other religions, but they subjected all non-Muslims to different rules, discrimination, and extra taxes. The Ottomans practiced Devshirme, forcibly taking children from Balkan Christian families and sending them to the Enderun School. The empire compelled them to convert to Islam and trained them as soldiers to expand the empire. Skanderbeg, a hero of Albania, was one of these children.

Conflicts and control went back and forth with the Austro-Hungairan Empire. In 1908, The Austro-Hungarian Empire officially seized control of the Bosnian and Herzegovina territory.

Sarajevo took the stage of the world in 1914 when Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on a street corner in Sarajevo. Many claim that this pivotal event was the bullet that triggered World War I. The footprints of Gavrilo are memorialized on the street corner next to a recreation of the car in which the Archduke and his wife were both shot.

The memorialized car of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the footprints of Gavrilo Princip memorialized in the pavement behind the car.
The corner of Appel Quay (now Obala Kulina bana) and Franz Joseph Street (now Zelenih beretki) where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated.


After WWI, Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Yugoslavia). The six republics, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia, plus two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, joined to form a kingdom.

Map of Yugoslavia
The six republics and two provinces of the former Yugoslavia. Map from Creative Commons Map

Only 21 years later, World War II begins, and the Axis of power invades and breaks up the kingdom. During the war, Croatia supported and promoted genocide against Jews and Slavs. The Croats fought for Nazi Germany.

After WWII, Josip Broz Tito reestablished and ruled Yugoslavia (1944-1980). Tito was an authoritarian dictator, but some have viewed him as a benevolent dictator who brought about economic growth. He kept the ethnic groups together under one rule by delegating some power to each region and compromising to keep ethnic tensions at bay. However, he also maintained control over ethnic tensions through brutal suppression and zero tolerance for dissent. He banned 16,000 enemies of the state and purged perceived enemies. Some say his brutal repression sowed the seeds for the violent breakup of Yugoslavia later. He is loved by many and also hated by many.

After Tito’s death in 1980, elected presidents rotated between each ethnic group, but tensions continued to rise. Yugoslavia began to fall apart in deadly conflict in 1991. Yugoslavia is no longer a country on the map. In its place are six/seven countries (Kosovo being the seventh). Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a separate country, but the UN recognizes it and it is part of the Schengen area.

An Olympic building now in disrepair
The Olympic building stands in disrepair, with a shattered brick walkway, after becoming the border of Sniper Alley.

In our Lifetimes

When I told my sister that Trin and I were going to Sarajevo, she asked me about safety. She and I grew up to news of the horror of the Bosnian War. Later, I called my mom and gave her our travel plans. “Oh, the Olympics were held in Sarajevo,” was my mom’s first comment. The only sports my family ever watched was the Olympics. I mused how different the images of Sarajevo were within just one generation. We often remember a place for what we heard in the news – even if it was years ago. The same happened to Trin and me before entering Colombia. I grew up with news of Medellin being the murder capital of the world, but Medellin is a place transformed by forgiveness.

Emerging from the Tunnel of Hope

As I emerged from the Tunnel of Hope that connected the sieged city of Sarajevo to the free Bosnian side, Nidal, our guide, pointed to an information sign that displayed the ceasefire agreement that stopped the Bosnian war in 1995.

“Many people say this was a Civil War. But if it was a Civil War, why did Croatia have to sign this agreement?” Nidal said, pointing to the signatures of the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the president of the Bosnian Serbs, and the president of Croatia.

Croatia was fighting its own battle for independence at the same time – or was it a Civil War – or was it a war for its borders, and did that initially include Bosnia?

“During World War II, the Ustaše, a fascist Croat movement, perpetrated the Holocaust and genocide against its Jewish, Serb and Roma populations killing hundreds of thousands pursuing its radical anti-Serbian policy.” [War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration by Jozo Tomasevich ISBN: 13-978-0804736152]

Bullet and mortar damage to a brick building, apartment building, and church.
Bullet and mortar damage from the siege is still visible today.

The checkered board coat of arms on the flag of an independent Croatia was, for many Serbs, like waving a flag with a swastika. For them, it is a symbol of the slaughter of Serbs under fascism. When Croatia declared independence, Franjo Tuđman moved to fire Serbian police officers and replace them with Croats. Did the Serbs fight for control out of fear, revenge, or the desire for dominance? The reasons I’m sure are numerous, and I am not the one to even begin to understand the reasons for the war.

Since the signing of the Denver pact in 1995, where all parties agreed to put down their arms, Sarajevo has been out of the news. Sarajevo is currently a safe place to travel, but the facade of buildings bears witness to the past with bullet holes and mortar blast marks. Although the Denver pact stopped the war, it did not solve the problems. Some wonder when the powder keg will blow again.

While doing some hiking in Bosnia, we never strayed from the trail or bushwhacked to another trail. There are too many unexploded land mines left behind, planted by all three sides of the fighting. In 1996, unexploded landmines injured or killed 662 people. The number steadily declines each year and as of 2011, the number of injuries and death dropped to 22 a year. Officials employ dogs to assist with finding unexploded mines. Gradually, each area is being cleared, but the task is massive. In just one year (the most recent record I could find is from 2022), mine clearing efforts cleared over 3,500 mines. The goal is to have all land mines cleared by 2025.

The Line between the Fight for Freedom or Revenge

When do you fight for freedom from oppression, freedom from having your children stolen and being treated like second-class citizens, and when do you forgive? Where is the line between fighting for freedom and fighting to avenge the past? I’m a sojourner through this land and am not the one to make this determination for each person who fought. I can only take it as a lesson in my life: that bitterness is human, it is ordinary, but it breeds more bitterness.

Is tolerance enough? Let others live as they wish, but don’t step on my patch of grass? Or do we need to actually love our neighbor to truly have peace?

Hatred is a normal human response. Forgiveness is extraordinary.

Green leaves with sun shinning through them
Ordinary leaves, green and dark, transform into extraordinary beauty when the sun shines through them.

4 thoughts on “Place of Hope in Sarajevo”

  1. I find this very interesting. This kind of history intrigues me, always has. Please be safe in your travels. Love you

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