Sunday, 27 January 2013

Day 268 – The Sarajevo Siege and the 1984 Winter Olympics.

We were greatly looking forward to our visit to Sarajevo. As the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina, a now independent country that is still amidst restoration after being ravaged by war in the 90’s, formerly part of the Yugoslavian Republic, and under Communism for most of its modern history, we knew that we were going to have a lot to see and a lot to learn. According to every guide book type source though, Sarajevo’s night life is fully repaired and it is quite an exciting European capital. We were also hopeful that after failing on finding somewhere to ski so far, we might get an opportunity here.
Arriving in Sarajevo a couple of its features struck us prominently: the first is that it is a beautiful city with a lot of historical buildings, a well-maintained old town, nice views from the hill the city is built on, and spectacular countryside surrounding it. The other feature though is the much more surreal fact that a vast majority of the buildings – historical, Soviet, residential, commercial, central and suburban alike – are covered in bullet holes. Many of them have been patched in places of structural importance, but very few have been done up cosmetically, and even fewer have been entirely re-built.
The Tunnel Museum, located near the airport on the outskirts of Sarajevo was, as far as we were concerned, a must-see. A small museum has been put together around the remaining 20m section of the supply tunnel that was built and used during the Serbian-inflicted Sarajevo Siege. Lasting for almost four years, making it the longest siege in modern history, claiming around 12,000 lives, and leaving Bosnia Herzegovina’s capital city in a state of extreme devastation and disrepair, this part of the country’s history is amongst the most horrific and confronting that we’ve come across. The tunnel ran for almost 1,000m underneath the UN controlled air base, connecting Sarajevo to the rest of the Bosniac controlled areas. country which was not under siege, and providing the only means of transportation for food, medical equipment, and military supplies to the city itself.
The museum was relatively difficult to find, as even though there are signs from the main road towards the museum, there are no directions once you get to the windy and un-marked side streets. We found ourselves taking a wrong turn and ending up approaching the secure zone around the still heavily militarised airport, where we were of course stopped by police. Using the “thankyou so much for stopping us, please help us with directions” method of avoiding questioning, which in this case was more than the truth, but has served us very well previously, we were pointed towards the museum. Down a couple of pot-holed side streets and past some more abundantly bullet-holed homes, we came to the humble museum.
Costing only 5 Marks (AU$3.30) to enter the small but very tactful and heart-wrenching museum, the experience was well worth it. We were welcomed with a video about the war and specifically the role this tunnel played in it, which of course we couldn’t understand the words of, but the pictures said enough. We were then shown the remaining section of tunnel, a few individual stories, some products from the time, and of course pictures of the tunnel in use. One particular display that pulled at the heart strings was the chair that was designed for the disabled leader of the country at the time to run on the rails inside the tunnel. Despite his physical disability, and the fact that he could have used this as an escape route to take himself to safety and relative comfort, he helped the project and nobly returned to Sarajevo just as everyone else did.
Even at such a site, there is always someone trying to take advantage of others and make a buck at every opportunity. The owner of the house next door to this one advertised on the street that there was museum parking, and when we went in, he tried to charge us even though the museum itself provides free parking and is located on a dirt road, next to fields, on the very outskirts of town where parking is acceptable anywhere. Not only this but he also had a little stall of tacky souvenirs completely unrelated to this museum, set up just on his side of the fence separating the two properties, which he stood next and spruiked for as we explored the exhibits in the museum. It is so sad that even something so noble, put together by non-profiteering individuals for the sake of preserving this important piece of Sarajevo’s history, should be tarnished by this type of obnoxious selfishness.
The History Museum, located across the road from the largest US Embassy in Europe, is inside a building which represents the pinnacle of Soviet architecture. As we drove past, the broken windows, myriads of graffiti and rubbish, and boarded-up main entrance almost had us convinced that the museum, at least at this location, was closed. Fortunately though we decided to stop and have a quick check and lo and behold, the grey cement block had just been left to disrepair but was in fact still working as the History Museum. Strangely enough it was even colder inside the building than it was outside – a testament to the unique standard of building implemented by the Soviet Union.  The array of artefacts, posters, people’s belongings, diary entries, advertising, photographs and memorabilia relating to the Sarajevo Siege was highly insightful and we could have spent hours inspecting each exhibit individually. Unfortunately though the day was drawing to a close and we planned to go on a free walking tour at 4pm.
We rushed back to the centre of town and to the meeting point for the tour which happened to be the office of the organiser. When we arrived though, we were informed that he had decided for undisclosed reasons that the tour which “runs every day without fail” wouldn’t run today. We suspect that cups of tea in his nicely heated office was most enticing than dragging a handful of tourists around the city at dusk.
Much to our delight we succeeded in our endeavour of fitting in a day of skiing, and not just at any old mountain, but at the location of the men’s events at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. The two mountains which hosted the men’s and women’s events – Bjelašnica and Jahorina respectively – are located not far from the city itself and make a very convenient day trip. We chose to go toBjelašnica, and whilst being great fun, was certainly a challenge! Runs marked as “intermediate” at this mountain are harder than most “expert” runs in Australia, and we disappointedly realised that despite our best intentions, we in fact probably aren’t Winter Olympics material. It was a bit of a stretch, but a very fitting start to our European ski season. Even after 29 years, the souvenir shops of Sarajevo are still littered with merchandise and advertising for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

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