Between May 1992 and November 1995, during the Siege of Sarajevo and in the midst of the Bosnian War the Sarajevo Tunnel was constructed by the Bosnian Army in order to link the city of Sarajevo, which was entirely cut-off by Serbian forces, with the Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the Sarajevo Airport, an area controlled by the United Nations. The tunnel linked the Sarajevo neighbourhoods of Dobrinja and Butmir, allowing food, war supplies, and humanitarian aid to come into the city, and people to get out. The tunnel was one of the major ways of bypassing the international arms embargo and providing the city defenders with weaponry.
Construction of the tunnel began in secret on 1 March 1993 under the codename “Objekt BD". The tunnel was to link Butmir and Dobrinja, two Bosnia held neighbourhoods one of which was inside Serbian siege lines, the other of which was outside. Nedžad Branković, a Bosnian civil engineer, created the plans of the tunnel’s construction underneath the Sarajevo airport runway; (Bosnia report). However, because of the urgency of the its construction full costing and technical specifications were never made.
The construction was assigned to the First Corps Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, under the supervision of deputy commander General Rašid Zorlak. The project was initially difficult to get started as there was a lack of skilled manpower, tools, and material to complete the task. Consequently, the tunnel was dug by hand, with a shovel and pick, and wheelbarrow was used to carry the 1,200 cubic metres  of detritus away. The tunnel was dug 24-hours a day, with workers working in 8-hour shifts digging from opposite ends. Its construction was financed by the State, the Army, and the City of Sarajevo. Rather than being paid monetarily, the workers were paid with one packet of cigarettes per day, an item that was in high demand and a prized bartering possession for those non-smokers.
A total of 2,800 square metres of soil was removed, 170 square metres of wood, and 45 tons of steel were used in the construction of the tunnel. A biggest technical problem was the underground water, that had to be most frequently thrown out manually. Because of the permanent shelling, the tunnel was installed with a pipe-line that was used for the delivery of oil for the town, then the mail-cables were also laid on, and thanks to the donation of Germany, the electro-cables were placed down so that Sarajevo has got a minimum of electricity and telephone lines with the world.
The construction of the tunnel was completed on 30 June 1993 when the two tunnels met in the middle. Use of the tunnel began the following day on 1 July 1993.
The tunnel consists of 160 metres of covered trenches on the Dobrinja side, 340 meters of covered trenches on the Butmir side, and 340 metres of actual tunnel under the airport runway. On the Dobrinja side, the average height of the tunnel was 1.6 metres (excluding the height of the iron reinforcements) and averaged 0.8 metres in width for the top half and 1 meter in width for the bottom half of the tunnel. On the Butmir side, the tunnel was slightly higher, 1.8 meters, excluding the wood reinforcements. The width on the Butmir side was the same as that of the Dobrinja side. There was also a section entitled the ‘reduced level entrance’. referring to a 30 metre portion on the Dobringja side that was the deepest and most difficult stretch of the tunnel. At its deepest point, the tunnel was 5m below the airport runway.
The entrance on the Dobrinja side was the garage of an apartment building. The entrance on the Butmir side was a nondescript house near the airport belonging to the Kolar family. Both entrances were under close guard and ringed by trenches manned by Bosnian troops.
At first the tunnel was a simple, muddy path in which supplies had to be carried by hand or on the backs of soldiers. Less than a year after it was created, however, a small railway track was laid and small carts were built to transport supplies through the tunnel. The final product of the tunnel also included a 12-megawatt voltage cable, pumps for pumping underground waters, an oil pipe, and permanent lighting.
There were two major problems with the tunnel. The first was flooding by underground waters which could rise to waist deep. The second was air quality. The tunnel had no ventilation and consequently, everyone entering the tunnel was forced to wear a mask.
The tunnel was constructed during the Bosnian War as a means by which to link two Bosniak held territories that had been cut off by the Army of Republika Srpska. The tunnel provided a crudish way to supply Bosniak, Pakistani, and UN units in Sarajevo. It also allowed for communication between the Bosniak and Bosniak-allied forces in Sarajevo and outside territories. It became a symbol of the city’s struggle. It allowed humanitarian aid to be given to the Bosniaks and it let them flee the city.
The tunnel was used to supply the Bosniak armed forces with wartime supplies, including food, fuel, newspapers, and weapons. Wagons were used to cart supplies through the tunnel and could be loaded with 400 kilograms of goods at one time. The first items to go through the tunnel were Bosniak IEDs. Food, cigarettes, alcohol, and petrol also passed through the tunnel allowing Butmir, Konoija, and Hrasnica to become blackmarket centers for the illegal sale of these items. The tunnel was also used to transport oil and for telecommunication.
The tunnel was also used as a way for Bosniaks and UN forces to get out of Sarajevo. Transit each way, both into the city and out of the city, was constant. Every day, between ,3000 and 4,000 Bosniak and UN soldiers (as well as civilians) and 30 tons of various goods passed through the tunnel. Groups travelling through the tunnel ranged in size from 20 people to 1,000 people. On average, it took 2 hours for these groups to travel through the tunnel. Throughout the war, between two million and three million Bosniaks and UN soldiers passed through the tunnel, and approximately 400,000 Bosniaks used the tunnel to flee Sarajevo. Those who traveled through the tunnel included soldiers, civilians, politicians, and generals. Alija Izetbegović; President of the first Bosniak country in existence (the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina) is the most notable individual who used the tunnel. He was carried through the tunnel on a chair called the "President's Chair" and never actually laid foot in the tunnel.
The entrance to the tunnel was protected by the Bosniak army and a permit was required to enter and leave the city by this underground route. There have been reports of Muslim civilians being forced to pay up to $120 USD by the Bosniak army for passage of themselves and their family through the tunnel.
Sarajevo Tunnel Museum
After the war, The Sarajevo Tunnel Museum was built onto the a historic private house whose cellar served as the entrance to Sarajevo Tunnel. Now visitors can still walk down a small length of the tunnel (approximately 20 meters). The "house" museum exhibits archival materials including an 18-minute long movie, war photographs, military equipment, flags, military uniforms, flotsam and jetsam. Local planning authorities are seeking funding for a "full reconstruction of the tunnel" and the "construction of museum buildings at its entrance and exit points".
Regarding the museum's purpose, Vladimir Zubić, deputy of the City Council of Sarajevo, notes that the museum is "a reminder of everyone, so that a thing like this tunnel, that provided the people of this city with the minimum subsistence, will never have to be used again. It will be a place where younger people will be able to study a part of our recent past and it will be proof that this part of our history will never be forgotten".
The house and the land around Sarajevo Tunnel's entrance is owned by Bajro Kolar, a local man who is now running this private museum. In a documentary about the Sarajevo War Tunnel, he talked about his reasons for turning the house into war facility. He said, "whatever we have, we gave for the defense and liberation of Sarajevo." Having existed for 15 years without any governmental financial support, this museum is becoming one of the most visited sites of the Bosnian capital, experiencing hundreds of daily visitors. Many guided tours operated in Sarajevo now include the Tunnel Museum as one of the war sites most worth visiting in the city.
The museum is open to visitors every working day from 9am to 4pm.
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- The Sarajevo Tunnel
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- File:Presidents Chair, Sarajevo tunnel.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
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- Agence France-Presse. (2004, February 1). Sarajevo’s wartime tunnel survives as museum. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/01/international/europe/01SARA.html
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- Sarajevo War Tunnel - YouTube
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- Bosnia Report
- Sarajevo's Tunnel of Hope (BBC)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sarajevo Tunnel.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Sarajevo.|
- Short video of a walk through the tunnel at the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum
- Photos of the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum
- Sarajevo ne želi obnovu tunela spasa, jednog od ratnih simbola (Croatian)