• Paul Coleman

Walking through a War Zone. Part 6: Sarajevo

Updated: Apr 25

Over the mountains into Sarajevo

April 21st. Into Sarajevo: Early in the morning we returned to the police station. My documents were not available. “Wait ten minutes.” A Policeman said. Time passed. I waited in a courtyard, sweltering under a blazing sun. Three hours went by. I felt frustrated. I had forty km’s to travel and a tree to plant the next day. I suggested to Sejo, that we search the village for a suitable tree. Within fifteen minutes we found one in the rubble of a bomb shattered house. It was a pine tree, a meter tall. When I found the tree I spoke of the hope that the tree planting could inspire. Once the war is over I intend to see many more trees planted.. I wrapped the roots in a plastic bag, poured in water and attached the tree to the back of my pack. The Earth will provide. Back at the police station I waited and waited. “Paul, there’s a problem.” Sejo said. “They have called in a criminal investigator from Sarajevo. They want to know who the people are mentioned in the fax, and how you got the information on the tunnel and sniper postitons.” I had visions of a professional interrogator, very angry at having to cross battle lines to question me, and of people being led away in hand cuffs, suspected of being traitors. I had visions of being tortured as I could not possibly explain who these people were. Then, quite magically and with no explanation a policeman came out and handed back all of my documents, except the fax and map and said that I could go. Sejo and Almin took me to the UN post at the edge of town. The Malaysian peacekeepers said there was no way to get into Sarajevo.That there had been heavy fighting on Mt. Igman for the past six weeks. They wanted to put me on a convoy that would take me out of the area and away from Sarajevo. 'Don't listen to them Paul,' Sejo, said 'We'll get you in'.

Mt. Igman Hotel. Photo credit: IWPR

At a Bosnian military post, they spoke to the commander and now everybody wanted to help, wanted to me to make it to the city to plant my tree. They fed me well and took me to another base and a track leading up Mt. Igman. On the way up the mountain I fell in with a group of soldiers. I didn’t say anything to them, I just joined them because it was the obvious thing to do. I hoped that they were on their way to Sarajevo and not to fight a battle. We climbed up and up along a dirt track that in places had tumbled down the mountain side. Near the top of the mountain we entered Pine Forests still deep in snow. It was very beautiful. We passed by shattered structures and heavily fortified bunkers which housed huge artillery pieces crossed encountering heavily armed troops that looked like they were headed to the battle lines, which by the sound of it, now seemed to be very close. Finally we reached the top of the mountain and a very long way down in a wide valley, I saw Sarajevo.

A young soldier walking behind me tapped my shoulder and pointed to the valley below and then to military positions around the city. "Chetniks". He said. I had come all this way knowing that there had been a siege for almost three years and yet I was still amazed at what I saw. The city was totally surrounded by the might of the Serbian military and except for this mountain everything I could see was in their control.

Sarajevo Under Siege and The UN Airstrip

Sporadic machine gun and cannon fire could be heard even from atop this mountain and for one brief moment I thought of the many times that I had been told. “People aren’t going to be interested in a tree. There’s a war going on. They’re going to think you’re crazy.” For a second I thought they might be right. Then I thought again. I had come all this way believing the people would appreciate this simple act and I was not going to stop believing now. Looking at the mass of weaponry and hearing the distant explosions, I felt as if I had been transported back to WW2 and I thought of the siege of Stalingrad and even further back to the siges i have read of during medieval times. I looked at the young soldier, pointed to the city and said. “Sarajevo?” “Ya. Sarajevo.” He replied. I cannot speak Slavic so I looked at him and tapped my chest. “Me go to Sarajevo.” I said, now pointing to him. “You go to Sarajevo?” “Ya. Me go to Sarajevo.” Again I pointed to me and then at him. “Me go with you to Sarajevo?” “Ya.” He replied. We smiled, shook hands and set off down the mountain.

Thank heavens; I now had a guide. We hiked down the mountain at a leisurely pace, until the trees thinned out, about two thirds of the way down the mountain. A large group of people waited in the trees. Every now and again a few people, civilians and soldiers, would run down the mountainside. There was a road, but no one was taking it. The road had many switchbacks and was too slow; anybody foolish enough to take this seemingly easier way would be shot before they reached the bottom. The safest way was for a few runners at a time to dash down the mountain side fast enough that snipers could not get their sights lined up. Recently they had even been firing rockets at people running. I had been advised never to take this way during the daylight; even on holiday I would have thought twice about taking such a steep route down a mountainside. And never would I have entertained the idea of running down a mountain with a fully loaded back pack. Yet, here I was, about to undertake a dash that would inspire an Olympic athlete to change their career. While we waited, I realised that there was one more very good reason for people to preserve the trees: You can hide behind them when the shooting starts. “OK. Let’s go.” The young soldier signaled, and we burst out of the trees and bounded down the mountain. The going was extreme, and we rock hopped and took giant leaps over unexpected chasms, vegetation and boulders, with not even time to catch a breath. The backs of my legs screamed for mercy and I realised how superhuman we can be when inspired. After twenty minutes we emerged into the village of Hrasnica, which was being shelled, on the front lines across the UN airstrip from Sarajevo. In the ruins of a house the young soldier bought beers and several kilos of food from a man selling goods on a makeshift table; the beer we drank, the food he added to his enormously heavy pack. This food he would deliver into the city. We walked a few hundred meters through a maze of bomb shattered streets to yet another shop in a ruined house; here my friend got us bread, meat and another beer, which we drank and ate before we entered a trench. My god, I was in a trench. I thought trench warfare was a thing of the past. I was told to keep my head down from snipers. My new friend was a good guide; without him I would never have found my way to the city. The pace through the trench was constant, with civilians and soldiers heading intot he city, every now and again long lines of troops would pass us headed n the opposite diection. At intevals soldiers crouched with their guns guarding the trench from attack.

Entrance to the Tunnel

We walked through the trench for two kilometres until we came to a ruined farmhouse in the middle of wide open fields. A lot of people mingled around the farmhouse, keeping their heads down from the snipers who were now just over 250 meters away on either side of the trench. For awhile I wondered what we were doing here. Why were we waiting? Then it dawned on me that this was the entrance of the tunnel to Sarajevo. I was expecting a road tunnel; this tunnel was hand dug, began in the cellar of the farmhouse, went under the UN airstrip and emerged a kilometre later somewhere in the city. So here I was waiting to enter the tunnel with soldiers, civilians, men, women and children. All were surprisingly relaxed, laughing and smoking cigarettes like chimneys. Cigarette companies must love war. There’s not much inspiration for people to give up smoking, when they might get their heads shot off any moment. So I was going under the UN airstrip. No planes had landed on that strip for several weeks, but as a UN base it was relatively safe from Serbian attack. But the farmhouse was not. Boom! Several kilometres away a shell was launched from a very big gun. I’d heard the big guns before, but never had they been pointed in my direction. The shell came screaming in so low that I feared my eardrums had burst. Like everybody else, I dived; face down, into the mud. Bang! The most enormous explosion shattered the earth less than twenty five meters away. Shrapnel flew everywhere, but thankfully not in the trench. I was amazed how fast people reacted; even I was face down when the shell exploded! All hell broke loose. I looked into the soldier’s eyes; they were glazed black with fear. Two young women scrambled away from the farmhouse, screaming, panicking, and crawling over us. They wanted to be far away from the farmhouse, as fast as possible. If the Serbs could destroy the entrance to the tunnel then the city would be shut off from its supplies and would undoubtedly fall.

The Tunnel Into The City

In a corner I saw two Mujahadeen warriors – Islamic freedom fighters from the Middle East. The international media had been debating for months whether or not there were any Mujahadeen in Bosnia. Boom, went another big gun. A third shell was coming in. And then it was like I could see through the walls, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt, that no bomb was going to hit me that day. I grew so relaxed and watched the now strangely surrealistic scene of people fighting to get into the tunnel. I wanted to calm them down, for if I was going to be OK, then so was everybody else. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, but if I laughed people would think I was shell shocked. I wondered if I should calmly smile, but then I decided that people would probably think that I was stupid. In the end I decided to radiate good vibes and felt peace wash over me. I was very relaxed. Meanwhile my friend the young soldier eased the tension by allowing people to go in front of him. Guarding the steps down into the tunnel stood two soldiers, but as bombs were falling and everyone was in mad dash to get into the tunnel they were not asking anyone to produce their pass, which was very fortunate, as I did not have one! We clambered down the wooden steps and entered the next stage of the ordeal.

Replica of Tunnel Cart and Track

The tunnel was extremely narrow and at points lower than a meter and a half. Occasionally a light illuminated the passage. Along the floor there were tracks to run cart loads of provisions into the city. I thought of the escape tunnels used by prisoners of war during WW2. With the tree poking up from my backpack I had to bend almost double so as not to break it on the roof. Always I had to beware of my head smacking into the sharp steel framework. The only fuel going into Sarajevo went through a pipe in this tunnel. The thought of being burned to death in this black hole must have inspired everybody with haste; the pace was very fast.

I was panting heavily and sweating profusely. If anyone had ever told me that I would voluntarily get into such a claustrophobic hole, I would have thought they were mad. It was truly an ordeal, but every now and again the line of people would stop, and again my spirits would be raised by the young soldier who would turn and smile. The trip through the tunnel took almost 30 minutes. When we emerged into the crowded streets of Sarajevo it was dark, and my thighs, back and shoulder were killing me, but how great I felt. Against all odds I had made it to Sarajevo with the tree, on April 21st, just one day before I would plant it.

Replica of Stretcher on Tunnel Tracks

The tunnel emerged in a Sarajevo neighbourhood; amid buildings that offered cover from grenade or sniper attack; hundreds of people were gathered to buy the food that came through the tunnel. My friend sold his food to an old lady. This was the cities life line and the most common commodity was potatoes. It was now time to leave the young soldier. For brief moments our lives were entwined and we shared a difficult experience that united us in friendship. To me, he will always be the hero and to him I will forever be grateful. I will never forget him, but sadly I never got his name. Our goodbye was very quick. He spoke to a young man who took my pack and put it in a battered old mercedes which he and a friend got into, and the next thing I knew I was on an extremely dangerous ride along the front lines to the UNPROFOR headquarters. I was deeply humbled by this; these unknown people risked their lives to get me to where I wanted to be.

(UMPROFOR: United Nations Protection Forces)

Photo credit: Gurhka Veteran UNPOFOR

At the headquarters I stood in front of the gate until the blue helmet of a French Peace Keeper popped up from behind the sand bags. He inspected my blue card, and took me to the Commander, who like the rest of his troops was flabbergasted to find an Englishman with a walking stick, a backpack and tree. “How did you get here?” The commander asked. “I came over Mt. Igman.” “But Mt. Igman is closed. There’s been heavy fighting for weeks.” “Then I went through a trench and through a tunnel.” “You came through the tunnel!” He exclaimed in astonishment. “We know that the Bosnians have a tunnel, but we’ve never been allowed to see it. How did you find it? Didn’t you need a pass to enter?” When I’d answered all the questions the commander asked. “Where would you like to stay?” I was so busy getting to Sarajevo that I had never thought about where I would stay once I got there. “The Holiday Inn.” I said. It was the only place I could think of. The hotel was very famous; whenever news was broadcast from Sarajevo it was reported from the Holiday Inn. The safest place in a warzone is usually where the journalists stay. I was given some rations, fastened into a flak jacket, and was driven in an armoured car to the Holiday Inn. The UN troops had good reason to be careful around the Holiday Inn; just two weeks earlier a UN peace keeper was killed by a sniper while erecting a defensive wall around the Hotel.

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©2018 Paul Coleman