War tourists fight to see Bosnia's past
Officials, worried that the wounds of the 1992-95 war are too fresh, dissuade those eager to learn about it.
Here in Bosnia, where the 1992-95 war can be the prickliest of subjects, some friends and I recently discovered that there are easier endeavors in life than trying to be "war tourists."
Interested in seeing the half-mile tunnel hand-dug by Bosnian government forces and volunteers in 1993 to connect the besieged city with government-held territory, we visit Sarajevo's tourist office to ask for directions.
A 20-something youth gives us a brochure - with a bungled map and no contact telephone number - and then skillfully steers us toward attractions downtown. "May I suggest you see these churches?" he says, circling a few landmarks on the city map.
Such attempts to redirect tourists leaves those interested in learning more about the war largely to their own devices. It also makes it difficult for war tour operators to conduct business. But tourism officials explain that with the wounds of the war still fresh, giving explanations of what happened, and why, can be quite a dicey proposition.
"We have to talk about nice things," says the head of Bosnia's tourism authority, Semsudin Dzeko. "And the ugly things - if someone is interested in history, it's easier for us to talk about the first or second world war - wars that happened 50 or 60 years ago - than the war that happened 10 years ago."
War tourism, he says, involves explanations that can rile some Bosnians in a country still divided into mostly ethnic halves. And those explanations - and the politics involved - could endanger the new national tourism association Mr. Dzeko is trying to run.
"I don't have anything against people talking about what happened, but it doesn't have to be morbid," he explains. "We're selling a product - tours of Sarajevo - and you don't want an arrangement that's going to scare people away the first day."
But guide Zijo Jusufovic - whose offerings include a popular Sarajevo war tour and a trip to Srebenica, site of the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims - has a different perspective. Avoiding talk of the war, he says, is rubbish, and besides, people are curious.
"Don't think they're crazy or like blood," he says of war tourists, over coffee at Sarajevo's bright yellow Holiday Inn - itself a landmark as the wartime home of the international press. "They want to understand what happened here, and they just want to compare their lives with people's lives here."
Clients are circumspect when they call, often avoiding the phrase "war tour" altogether. "They'll say, 'I'd like tour No. 1 and tour No. 4,' " Mr. Jusufovic says, adding that he never gets large groups. Pairs or smallish groups of up to seven people are the norm.
Large groups, however, do show up at a museum perched atop one end of the Sarajevo war tunnel - although one bitterly cold afternoon, my two friends and I are the only ones there. And we barely make it. The unpaved, snowy road leading there is a bit hairy for my car, and though I've been there before, we nearly get lost. We speculate on how many hapless tourists have set out to find it and never succeed.
At the height of its use, 4,000 people crept daily through the tunnel, which took four months to complete. The wounded went out; food, weapons, and ammunition went in. The museum was built in 1996, run by the family that once lived in the house there.
Once we arrive, we creep through the60 feet of tunnel still remaining - the rest of it has collapsed. We walk in a half-hunch to protect our heads from the low ceiling punctuated by steel beams. It's cold and damp inside the dimly lit tunnel. At our feet were the tunnel floor's rail tracks, used for gurneys and boxes of ammunition and weapons. The museum might be primitive, but there's also a respectful lack of kitschy souvenirs.
That may change, however. The canton of Sarajevo made a plan a few years back to redo the whole tunnel, and add parking lots, greenery, and other amenities. Curator Edis Kolar, whose family runs the museum, says that after more than a decade of gathering artifacts and giving tours, he wouldn't mind turning the museum over to officials - as long as they give his family recognition and official jobs. The plan is stalled for lack of money and initiative, but Municipal Mayor Amer Cenanovic says they will at least pave the road to the museum this year, and he hopes the canton will take on the museum soon as well.
"It's absolutely worth saving - it's a part of history," says Mr. Cenanovic, who made half a dozen trips through the tunnel during the war. "People going through that tunnel carried loads that weighed as much as they did. It would be hard enough going through [the tunnel] without anything, never mind with all that. Imagine how strong a person can be in those moments."