The world had watched a city stripped bare. In 1992, Milosevic's Bosnian Serb army slipped into Sarajevo's surrounding hills and opened the longest siege in modern European history. The Muslim majority endured 1,400 days of bombardment and sniper fire; more than 11,000 civilians died. Twelve years after the end of the conflict I arrived on the inaugural British Airways flight from Gatwick – the first of a thrice-weekly direct service. The timing was impossible to ignore; just as the last British troops were flying out, the first British tourists were flying in.
On the drive to the city centre, it became obvious why those in the know see Sarajevo as "Europe's Jerusalem". Spires and minarets spike the skyline, and the air resounds to the chimes of bells and the imam's mournful call. It's to be expected that scars of conflict remain, from the grand shell of the National Library – where two million priceless texts were reduced to ashes – to the chipped façades and splintered window frames of the hillside houses. What's less expected is how much has been reconstructed, how many shops there are to browse, how upbeat the mood and downright pretty the place.
In the afternoon I trawled the old town's narrow alleys. Kazandziluk Street echoes to the tinny tapping of coppersmiths at work in their open-fronted shops. They fashion coffee pots and cauldrons from spent shell casings, ballpoint pens from bullets. Nearby is Morica Han, once a caravanserai offering shelter for travelling traders and now a place to browse bright woven carpets and relax with a coffee. The strong black stuff is a way of life in Bosnia – a post-war billboard campaign to rebuild trust between the country's ethnic groups pleaded "Let's go for a coffee!". I visited the yellow sandstone Church of the Holy Heart, where Pope John Paul II prayed in 1997, and the classic 16th-century Mosque of Gazi Husrev-Beg. Everywhere are signs of the city's position as a meeting point of east and west – nowhere more than in the main square, around which are clustered Orthodox and Catholic churches, a mosque and a synagogue.
All around is raw evidence of the hardiness of human spirit. Take Edis Kolar. Edis is a teak-tough man, you can sense, with aviator sunglasses and a wry smile; he told me his story in the matter-of-fact manner of one who'd been forced to grow up early. At 16, he was a kid who smoked the odd fag and played football in the street; at 17, he was a fighter for freedom. "We could fight and risk dying, or not fight and die for sure. We fought. We had no choice." Now, in his early 30s, he's the guardian of a dingy bit of tunnel beside a house with a hundred pockmarks.
Only this is far more than a dingy bit of tunnel – it's a link between dark days past and tangible hopes for brighter days to come. As I stooped and shuffled along the surviving portion of the Sarajevo War Tunnel, I knew that every cursed beam on which I cracked my head was hewn from spirit at its hardiest. As the siege dragged on and food ran out, the Sarajevans had to rely on UN aid. "I once ate a tin of cake dating back to 1962," he remarked. "It must have been left-over Vietnam rations or something. It didn't taste of much."
And so, driven by the desperate need for fresh provisions, the besieged people took picks and shovels and dug this tunnel by the light of burning vegetable oil. It opened from the Kolar family home in a northern suburb, snaked beneath the UN-controlled airport and emerged in free Bosnian territory beyond. Here was a lifeline three feet wide, five feet high and 875 yards long. Hearing whispers of its existence, the Serbs shelled the area relentlessly, but the walls held true. For the next two years, 4,000 people passed through every day, wading in waist-high water as they carried food and medicine – and oil, ammunition and electricity.
The following morning I met Tim Clancy, who pitched up in 1992 to lend a hand to the relief effort, and ended up staying. He carried me off to the highlands on a tide of enthusiasm. The region was hit hard by the war; the villagers fled and an ancient way of life hung by a thread.
But some people have returned. At Umoljani we were welcomed by Emin Fatic, who ushered us into his hut and plied us with dough balls and burek, a hearty dish of meat and puff pastry. We ate as the village women celebrated the landscape in haunting bursts of throat song, and then we were off and out. I worried about mines and Tim laughed and reassured me; he valued his knees too. As the valley unfolded below us and we gloried in the view, I realised that nothing in Bosnia is average.
HOW TO GET THERE
British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com) flies three times a week from Gatwick to Sarajevo from £158 return. The author stayed at Hotel Hecco (00 387 33 273 730; hotelhecco.net), which offers b&b in a double room from ¿67 (£48) per night.
Green Visions (00 387 33 717 290; greenvisions.ba) organises trips into areas of in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Fortuna Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org) conducts guided tours of MostarReuse content