Tunnel of Hope

Tunnel of Hope

In the beginning the Yugoslav Army, which had secretly joined forces with Milosevic, deployed troops on the hills around Sarajevo on the premise that they wanted to protect the city from the enemy.

What the citizens of Sarajevo didn't realize was that the enemy would be the same Yugoslav Army, that heavily armed the SDS paramilitary forces, under the command of Radovan Karadic. Milosevic's plan was to create a 'Greater Serbia' by annexing virtually the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina, parts of Croatia where Serbs lived, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Vojvodina. An 'ethnic cleansing policy was pursued by Serbs, and in several cities, especially in border areas, Serbs became the only residents previous inhabitants were either killed, expelled or taken to concentration camps.

Although BIH was already recognized as independent and sovereign by the United Nations, neither Milosevic nor Karadic accepted it, and the ethnic cleansing continued unchecked- people and places were killed and destroyed. The then President of BIH, Alija Izetbegovic, knew that they wouldn't stop, and appealed to the International Community, and the UN to intervene to stop the killing, but no such intervention was forthcoming. UN observers were sent, but they did not stop the Serbs.


The situation in the capital of BIH was hard. The Serbs, again assisted by the Yugoslav army, didn't have much difficulty in occupying residential areas in the Sarajevo suburbs: Sarajevo was under siege, without water, food, medicine, electricity and gas. Any armed citizens that there were, were concentrated in the urban center of the city. At that time BIH didn't have any official armed forces. People gathered in what was called the 'patriots league' - a raggle taggle bunching of police units, resistance fighters and some well known Sarajevo criminals. Additionally, the Yugoslav Army still had control over the barracks in the city center.

The Serbs continued to try and enter the city to take control, but they always failed. The narrow Sarajevo streets allowed the Bosnian soldiers to stop armoured vehicles from entering. The Serbs, however, took revenge for this failure to progress on the ground. They destroyed the city with arbitrary artillery fire, laying to waste schools, hospitals and other vital city buildings. Young and old were caught up in the crossfire. During that period life in the city was hell. Rare peaceful days occurred when an international official was in town to observe the ruins. Sarajevans hoped these visits would bring the long desired international intervention, and an eventual end to the war. But they always had the same result: result. TV pictures broadcast throughout the world demonstrated clearly who was suffering. Children were being killed, people queued incessantly for bread and water, buildings des-troyed. But the world didn't understand, or didn't want to understand, the true nature of what was happening, and the appeals for help.


However, the UN did one positive thing. In July 1992 they took control of the airport from the Serb army forces, which made food delivery for Sarajevans, by air lift, possible. But, in the agreement signed between General Ratko Mladic and the UN for transfer of control of the airport, Mladic successfully demanded that the airport be used only for UN purposes. The UN respected this demand. The airport, however, was of great strategic importance to the Bosnian army, because it was located between the besieged city and free territory. Any Bosnians who took the risk of crossing the airport under cover of darkness to take food to their families were usually stopped. Some UN soldiers did help people cross, but these instances were few and far between. Nor did these rare cases help the UN's image with the people of Bosnia Herzegovina, who couldn't understand why the UN would respect the agreement with the Bosnian Serbs. It was unacceptable, the city was without food and ammunition and could not survive nor defend itself; its citizen's needed safe passage via the airport to provide these things, but the UN's actions made it virtually impossible. Night after night people took the risk anyway, some succeeding, but only after many attempts were made. To cross the airport meant running the gauntlet of Serb snipers, and many People were killed this way.

The Tunnel

This hard situation led many to the conclusion that a tunnel under the airport might be the solution. People in the Bosnian army headquarters initially had the idea to use the drainage pipes under the runway as a tunnel, but the airport plans could not be found.

At the end of 1992 the army headquarters, under General Rasid Zorlak, initiated the construction of the tunnel. Eight members of the civil protection unit from Dobrinja worked 3-4 hours per day. The bad weather conditions, the lack of tools, the constant shelling and other problems made the pace slow, and pessimism loom large. The digging was completely manual; pickaxes and shovels the only tools.

The secrecy surrounding the project meant that few resources were allocated to it, and in March the project began to flounder. It was so secret that even the President didn't know about it, but when he was informed about it, he gave his full support, and perhaps more importantly, ordered additional equipment and manpower for the exercise. Work on the Dobrinja side began again on 28th March 1993, this time with all the necessary resources. The Sarajevo brigades provided manpower, mostly workers from construction companies with experience in such tasks. Many were from the 5th brigade, Dobrinja.

Organising the second dig was hard and communicating with it even harder. The only way to communicate was to run across the airport. Members of llidza municipality civil protection unit were deployed to dig the tunnel, starting on 23th April 1993, in Donji Kotorac, near the Kolar family house. Later, miners from Miljevina and Middle Bosnia joined the diggers, who now worked in 3 shifts, 24 hours a day. The main problem encountered when digging was underground water. With the electricity supply subject to constant interruption, the water had to be taken out of the tunnel manually, in buckets or canisters. As the work progressed, electric lights were installed in the tunnel, with power supplied by a small generator.

On the Dobrinja side, iron collected from Sarajevo factories was used to support the interior walls, as wood was hard to find. On the Butmir side it was the direct opposite. Iron was hard to find so most of the material used for the tunnel at that end was wood that came from Mount Igman. The excavated soil was stored near the tunnel entrance, and doubled as protection from Serb shelling. The soil was taken out in wheelbarrows, which was hard work.

As the work on the tunnel really got underway, news about its existence leaked to the Serbs. They targeted the work areas with constant shelling, and even protested to UNPROFOR, who occupied the airport. UNPROFOR didn't respond, maybe because they couldn't find any evidence of its existence, or maybe because they were just turning a blind eye to-it.

A total of 2800 cubic meters of earth was excavated to create the tunnel, which was lined with around 170 cubic meters of wood, and 45 tons of metal.  It was 800 meters long, and the average width was 1.5 meters. On the night the tunnel was completed 12 tons of army material was transported to the city, and a large group of reinforcement soldiers came from Sarajevo to Mount Igman, which was under attack from Serbs, who were trying to cut off the Igman road.

The DB Tunnel was a military facility, with security and control. The link between the two entry points was by military telephone. In the beginning, everything had to be carried by hand or on your back. Food, cigarettes, oil, ammunition, weapons, medications, the injured and everything which is where the problem of underground water was greatest.

Very often, people had to go through knee-deep water because the pumps had broken down. Twice the tunnel was completely flooded to the ceiling. The first time it was blocked for 2 days, and the next time for 5 days. After this, larger pumps were installed, but they had to be mounted outside, which increased the risk, but they were more effective. The tunnel never flooded again. Tunnel maintenance took place everyday between 0800 and 1100.

The movement of people through the tunnel was one-way at a time. Groups were between 20 and 1000 persons, and almost every person carried around 50 kilograms of food on their backs. Food was mostly purchased in Croatia and transported to Butmir over Mount Igman, where people in the free territory would come to buy, as well as moving some of it into the city through the tunnel. Larger groups of people needed up to two hours to get through the 800 meter path.The daily average was 4,000 people.

Because of the oil shortage in the city, an oil pipeline was made through the tunnel. One fuel truck pumped out fuel from the Butmir side, through the pipeline in the tunnel, and another truck on the Dobrinja side took the fuel on board. This was the highest risk operation, next to the transport of ammunition.

The Sarajevo War Tunnel was of great importance for Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. As military communication it made the movement of army personnel and materials possible when they were most needed. It allowed the transport of food, medicine, fuel and power to the besieged city. It also allowed the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to function and Members of Parliament to enter the city. The tunnel saved the city from total occupation, and saved up to 300,000 lives. 

The Destiny Of The Kolar Family And Their House

The Kolar family consisting of Alija, Sida, Bajro, Emma, Edis and Edin gave their house to the BIH army house in the building of the funnel, and in so doing made a great contribution to the defense and survival of Sarajevo and BIH.

Grandmother Sida became well known to everyone who worked at the tunnel, as well as others passing through it. She always had a glass of water for exhausted soldiers, a piece of bread for those who were hungry and, in the winter time, she provided heat for hundreds in her little room, where people waited their turn to go in the tunnel.

The Kolar Family


The Men Who Built The Tunnel


The Tunnel


Items People Would Carry Through The Tunnel

11 (1)

People Vying For Water In A Country Rich With Water Resources

12 (1)
14 (1)

The Passage Control Desk Inside The Tunnel


Mines, Everywhere


Mines were everywhere, and still are in certain areas, so hikes in those areas should be with guides.

Children who live next to these areas also need to be constantly warned about playing safely.

An Ending Note, The Story Of The Sarajevo Rose.

18. Saravejo rose

Thousands of shells rained on Sarajevo during the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina and IUN forces registered on average of 330 impacts a day. In just one of such days, on 22 July 1993, Sarajevo received 3,777 shells fired from the surrounding hills. In the siege that lasted for 1,425 days, every single shell left scars on the asphalt roads, pavements or town buildings. Many of them wounded or killed one or more citizens in the besieged town while explosions were leaving marks in concrete, similar to flowers. On some locations in town those scars were painted with red resin and hence they were named Sarajevo roses. As a result, the Sarajevo rose became the symbol and the memorial of those who were killed in the besieged Sarajevo and of their heroic struggle, whereas red colour is a reminder of the blood of Sarajevo inhabitants shed while queuing for bread and water, of children playing carefree and of all those who were only trying to survive in the town without an exit. In the first phase of the project, 100 of Sarajevo roses were marked but many of them disappeared due to various reconstruction and rehabilitation activities.

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