Ryan Schuessler
Ryan Schuessler

From Mostar to Sarajevo, Bosnian war sites turn into tourist attractions

Only 20 years later, many places widely known for tragedy during Balkan conflict are welcoming throngs of travelers

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Edis Kolar was 17 years old when officials from the Bosnian army arrived at his family’s house and told his parents they were going to build a tunnel in their basement.

That was in 1992, during the siege of Sarajevo. The tunnel was dug, extending nearly half a mile to the U.N.-controlled airport and providing the only link between Sarajevo and the rest of the world. Some called it the Tunnel of Life because it allowed people, food, supplies and arms to enter the city while Sarajevo was besieged by Bosnian Serb forces.

Things have changed since then.

Like many of the sites of the Bosnian War, Sarajevo’s war tunnel is now a tourist attraction. Tourism has picked up in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and locals — many of whom experienced the horrors of war — are increasingly tapping into an industry built around visitors who go to see the sites of Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II. 

Wartime kitsch

Kolar is back at his old house nearly every day now, no longer as a soldier. Today the house and approximately 65 feet of the tunnel are a government-owned museum where he works. The first tourists visited the tunnel around 2005. Last year nearly 80,000 visited the museum.

“Most of the people are coming because of the war,” he said. “Just to see what happened here. For people it was not understandable that war this terrible happened in Europe.”

For Bosnians dealing with the chaos of the war in the 1990s, it was hard to imagine what a return to peacetime life would be like. When Abid Jasar was driving munitions for the Bosnian army 20 years ago, “not even in [his] dreams” did he expect he would end up selling magnets to tourists visiting the Sarajevo War Tunnel Museum next to his house.

“After the war, I was expecting a normal job,” Jasar said, pausing to take drag of his cigarette. That’s when Diane Orrett, a British tourist visiting from her home in Japan, walked into his shop.

“When I was in England, when I was a kid, it was always on TV, what was going on in Bosnia,” she said. Two decades later, she found herself wanting to visit the war-torn nation she saw on the news.

“People did say, ‘Why are you going there?’” she said. “It’s completely changed now. It’s a place that tourists can come to.”

During the war, Sarajevo, now Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital, was divided and under siege, less than a decade after hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Ryan Schuessler

The tiny Balkan country of Bosnia-Herzegovina has a lot to offer visitors in terms of rich history, stunning landscapes and cuisine, as it always has. Also, the scars of war are still hard to miss, and an industry has formed around tourists who seek them out rather than the more conventional tourist attractions of ancient buildings, quaint cafes and rolling mountains.

“People want to try to understand what happened,” said Ervin Tokic, a tour guide in Sarajevo. “You go to Paris to see the art. You go to Italy to see the Roman architecture and cuisine. Sarajevo — the Jerusalem of Europe — it’s basically very well known for its wars.”

Responding to customer demand, in 2013 he started to offer a Total War tour, which guides tourists around the various sites relevant to the siege of Sarajevo. Most of his clients are from Western Europe and the United States. They typically stay in Sarajevo for two or three days, he said.

Tour companies offer day trips to Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in just a few days in 1995.

“In a way, this tour can help to understand what Srebrenica is today, what it has been yesterday and day before but, most of all, what Srebrenica can become with all of us participating together,” reads a description for one company’s Genocide Tour.

In the Herzegovinian city of Mostar, visitors pose for pictures next to rocks inscribed with “Don’t forget ’93” in homage to the thousands of civilians killed during fighting there. Tourists can buy kitschy magnets of Mostar’s Stari Most, an Ottoman-era bridge that, some argue, was symbolically destroyed by Roman Catholic Croats during the war and was later rebuilt.

“It’s interesting walking around Mostar, with all the buildings that are burned out,” said British traveler Peter Woolcock while on a train from Mostar to Sarajevo. “It’s kind of strange being here when [war] was going on in recent history.”

“I think it’s tricky, because I think it’s important for people to know what happened here,” said Stephanie Hays, an American who was traveling with Woolcock. “You need to strike a balance between educating and not trivializing, which can be challenging.”

She added, “I personally have no interest in owning a bullet casing,” referring to souvenir shops in Mostar and Sarajevo that sell key chains and pens made of war materiel.

Pens made of spent bullet casings are for sale at tourist shops across Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Ryan Schuessler

But for Muhamed Huseinovic, tourists wanting to own a piece of the war are what helps him support his family. He sells copper goods and trinkets in Sarajevo’s Coppersmith Alley, as his family has for more than 200 years.

“I’ve already had enough of these going over my head,” he said he thought when his sons approached him with the idea of turning bullet casings into souvenirs after the Dayton Accords were signed in 1995, bringing an end to the war. “But tourists, journalists and U.N. soldiers would buy them.”

In his shop, tourists can buy an engraved bullet or anti-aircraft shell casing for approximately 15 Bosnian marks ($8). They can buy an engraved mortar shell casing for just over $100.

“They buy the souvenirs,” Huseinovic said while shrugging. “And it’s a symbolic one.”

For him and others who profit, war tourism has provided a means to make a living in a country with a nearly 44 percent unemployment rate and nearly stagnant economy. Ten years ago he was able to buy his family a used car with the extra money coming in.

“People couldn’t understand that [tourism] is a job,” Kolar said of other Bosnians’ reactions to tourists heading to the country in the early 2000s. “It is salary. It is money that you can live from. It takes at least 10 years for people to understand that. Now tourists are coming here and are also sleeping somewhere, eating somewhere, driving somewhere.”

Mirsad Merdzanovic, who served in the Bosnian army and now drives tourists around Sarajevo from time to time, thinks it’s a good thing that people want to visit and learn about history and life in Sarajevo and the rest of the country.

But what does he think when he’s asked to drive in the part of the city where he once fought?

“Well, there is no other way,” Merdzanovic said. “You need to make some income. You need to somehow make a living and also to earn the daily bread.”

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