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New Europe

Day Fifteen: Sarajevo

The Kolar family house 
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The house of the Kolar family, beneath which the only tunnel to break the siege of Sarajevo was dug, still bears the scars of war.
Michael Palin - New EuropeIn the suburb of Butmir, at the house of the Kolar family, is a display headed 'Sarajevo Olympic City 1984, Surrounded City 1992-1995'. It's not absolutely accurate. The fact that Sarajevo survived the siege at all was because it was never quite surrounded. There was one way in and out, and it was through the Kolar house.

In June 1992 the UN struck an agreement with the Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic to keep Sarajevo airport open for humanitarian aid. This in theory offered a break in the chain of encirclement, except that the UN had also agreed with Mladic that no Bosnians should be allowed in the airport perimeter. After some 800 people had died trying to get across, the poorly armed Bosnian army defending the city turned in desperation to a tunnel beneath the airport.

It was cramped, the average width and height throughout its 880-yard length being no more than four and a half feet. It was frequently under water and twice flooded to the ceiling, but it enabled supplies of food, medicine, ammunition and human reinforcements to be moved in and out. A small railway was constructed and eventually telephone cables and a rudimentary oil pipeline were also fed through. It's estimated that this tiny artery beneath the airport saved 300,000 lives.

The house, still bearing the scars of bombardment, is now open as a museum, presided over by Bajro and Edis Kolar. Edis can't be far off thirty but like others I've met in Sarajevo he has the world-weary air of a much older man. His lightly tinted spectacles, soft voice and matter-of-fact delivery give him the abstracted air of a put-upon teacher, but during the war, when in his teens, he was part of a crack military unit whose job it was to select and take out Serbian artillery posts.

'I was a war veteran at the age of twenty-one.' He laughs ruefully.

He remembers walk-ins of over fourteen hours, with full equipment and often
in darkness.

'I saw many things that most people will never see in their whole life.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Fifteen: Sarajevo
  • Country/sea: Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Place: Sarajevo
  • Book page no: 40

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