Lonely Planet’s People You Meet series profiles people we think you should meet on your journey – those who make lasting impressions and help you connect more deeply with the destination.
“How do you like my artwork?” says Almir Ahmetagic, a wry smile creeping across his face as he points to a large dent in the minivan we have just clambered out of. He shrugs and lets out a small laugh, his car keys jangling in his hand.
It instantly breaks the ice among our intimate three-person tour group. Thirty years on from the end of the Bosnian War, we have just been taken to one of the many places where bullet holes still pepper Sarajevo’s residential buildings.
Sure, we’re learning about one of the most brutal and longest sieges in modern history – but with Almir around, we can expect a few dark-humored jokes along the way.
His experience of surviving the war is harrowing. He was shot twice and had to watch as enemy forces burned down his home, not long before his own brother tragically died from sniper fire.
But despite all this, his story – and that of the city – is leavened with hope.
Almir’s hope-filled tour of Bosnia’s difficult past
He was about 15 when the siege of Sarajevo began in 1992, and joined the army that year with his brother to fight against the Serbian forces that had besieged the capital city.
Witnessing firsthand many of the pivotal moments from the near-four-year-long siege, Almir today provides guided tours of his hometown for visitors who want to better understand Bosnia and Hercegovina’s difficult but fascinating past.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to impress all these girls,’” he tells us, jokingly recalling why he joined the army. “But, really, the Serb army left us only one option: to fight. Because in every town that was taken, civilians were killed.” It’s estimated that around 100,000 people died during the war, while more than two million were displaced.
He ushers us over on foot to the first major stop of the tour, Sarajevo’s Tunnel Museum. It’s a small, crumbly, bullet-strewn building that looks no different than many of the houses nearby.
On the floor near the entrance are traces of what looks like faded red paint. Yet we soon learn of their significance: this is a Sarajevo Rose, one of around 200 memorials you can find across the city that have been made from concrete scars caused by mortar shell explosions and later filed with red resin.
It may be called a rose, but it looks more like blood – and is pretty chilling. It brings home the brutality of war. These are spots where people more often than not lost their lives.
Almir explains how Serb forces – who had wanted to create a new Bosnian Serb state after Bosnia and Hercegovina declared independence during the breakup of Yugoslavia – had encircled Sarajevo, cutting off residents’ electricity, water and food.
Multiethnic Bosnia is mainly made up of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats; during the war, it was the Bosniak population that fell victim to what is widely today considered ethnic cleansing by the Serb forces. Sarajevo today remains a majority Bosnian Muslim population, with residents like Almir identifying as Bosniak.
Sarajevo occupies the bowl of a valley, and snipers positioned themselves advantageously in the surrounding mountains, regularly opening fire on soldiers and civilians, says Almir. “The first time I was wounded was by a small piece of shrapnel. That piece of shrapnel is still in my head,” he adds, tapping his skull.
The second time he was not so lucky, with shrapnel hitting his spine. “I was told I would never walk again,” says Almir, who spent a shocking three years in the hospital recovering from the wound. Fortunately, he proved the doctors wrong and can walk today.
To survive and communicate with the outside world, the Bosnian army and volunteers dug a tunnel to an area outside Sarajevo that was free-Bosnian territory. This meant food, war supplies and humanitarian air could enter the city – and is how the “Tunnel of Hope” came to be named.
Armed with this knowledge, we head 16ft (5m) underground to experience part of the tunnel for ourselves. The space tightens, the temperature drops. It’s awe-inspiring to think that the 2625ft (800m)-long tunnel was built in just over four months, during heavy bombing and artillery fire. “Mind your head,” warns Almir, who traveled the route multiple times. “I had to get stitches once!” We walk through, crouched over, with lamps overhead lighting our path.
Perspective from the Trebević Mountain
After emerging back at the surface, we hop back into the minivan to journey up the beautiful Trebević Mountain, which overlooks Sarajevo. En route, Almir points to popular restaurants, cafes and hangouts as we drive through what is today very much a thriving and bustling city.
High up, Almir shows us where the snipers had once dug in. No one’s around as we stand on the mountain ridge and quietly survey the city in peace. At the time of our visit, a thick blanket of snow covers the ground. I imagine how perfect this spot would be to take refuge from the summer heat.
Before we travel back down to the city, we visit the mountain’s abandoned Olympic bobsled track, from the 1984 winter games. Surrounded by a protected forest with a number of hiking routes, we walk along the bobsled course, which is covered in graffiti and flecked with holes made by mortar shells and artillery damage.
Our final stop is at one of the largest and oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, which was located on the frontline during the war and is also sadly scarred by shelling. We’re told how the Serb forces used it as an artillery position, and how a number of the graves still remain flattened after collapsing from the heavy weaponry propped up on them.
Yet like many of the other stops on the tour, there’s a quiet peace now on the grounds, despite all the site has witnessed. That same sense of calmness comes through in the capital’s residents, too. Such as Almir, who – more than anything else – is a champion of his hometown. And of hope.
How to book
Almir’s half-day Sarajevo siege tour can be booked online via Funky Tours. Tickets cost around €30 per person, and include entry to the Tunnel Museum.