The year is permanently 1996 in a war bunker on a steep dead-end street near downtown Sarajevo. The walls are lined with tree trunks and the floor is covered in sawdust. There are scratchy ration blankets to lessen the discomfort of the hard benches, and jerry cans of water in the corner.
"Make yourself cozy and comfortable," the proprietor orders.
This is the War Hostel in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a new accommodation for visitors hoping to get a taste of the longest running siege in modern warfare. Each guest is greeted by Arijan Kurbašić, a stern 24-year-old clad in a makeshift United Nations peacekeeper uniform. Just a baby when the war started, he and his family survived the entire four-year ordeal in this house. Now, they run an immersive hostel and tour of the front lines to rave reviews.
From 1992 to 1996, Sarajevo was held hostage by the neighboring Serbian military and its Bosnian loyalists as Yugoslavia began breaking off into six independent nations just above Greece in southeastern Europe. The Serbs sealed all entrances and exits, encircled the city with snipers, and terrorized the civilian population. When the siege officially ended, on February 29, a battered city and 11,541 dead were left behind. In the years after, the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia tried 161 people for war crimes.
Arijan’s father, Yasmin, spent all four years fighting on the front lines. He recalls the moment in February when a NATO soldier arrived to his post and told him the war was over and they had 15 minutes to evacuate. "I only needed one second," he says.
Upstairs from the War Hostel’s bunker, Arijan stands sentry behind a sandbag-reinforced reception desk. The walls are covered with flags, tarps bearing the acronym UNHCR for the UN Refugee Agency, and newspaper clippings blaring with reports from the besieged city. Beds are mats on the floor, and the walls above them are covered in artillery holes.
Every night, the hostel shuts off its lights and demonstrates how cooking oil candles were used during power outages. After that, guests can descend into the bunker for a film screening. Arijan scrolls through his laptop collection, which contains nearly every documentary and movie about the siege. He says he's viewed each 100 times.
This night’s chosen feature is about a British professor attempting to get his wife and son out of Sarajevo during the siege. Arijan excuses himself before it begins. Though he knows every line, it’s too emotional for him to watch—the characters were his parents’ friends. What the bunker is missing for realism, he says later, is a fog machine in the outer hallway.
“The point of traveling is to experience different cultures, see different history and learn different things,” Arijan says. “I built this to teach people about what happened here. By learning about it there is a chance of preventing similar things to the war that we experienced.”
Today, Sarajevo’s streets are filled with locals and tourists sipping thick Bosnian coffee in outdoor cafes. There are eclectic wine bars and European designer stores. The bustling downtown market is tucked amidst the sensibilities of a European city: wide boulevards and grand Austro-Hungarian buildings. Soaring mosques, cathedrals, and synagogues coexist in the skyline. The city was resilient even during the siege, hosting a film festival, opening a war theater, and crowning “Miss Sarajevo.” The grand Ottoman-era brewery, Sarajevska Pivara, down the street from Arijan’s family never shuttered, providing Sarajevans with some of the city’s only accessible water.
But 20-year-old scars remain, and a full recovery is still in the future. Shrapnel wounds still mark buildings and red splatters on the sidewalk are called Sarajevo Roses: shell craters filled with paint to signify where lives were lost. The national museum that houses Bosnia's treasures just reopened last year after struggling with financial shortfalls. Today, the ethnic tensions that were blamed for the fighting have resulted in a split government. The country has three presidents—Serb, Croat and Bosniak—representing the majority ethnic splits. No decision can be made without the trifecta's consensus.
“Sarajevo is the best example of how dangerous it can be to separate people into ‘us’ and ‘them,’” says Arijan. “That’s what I’m trying to teach people.”
A young history buff, he began leading tours of the city when he was a teenager, and found visitors were most enthralled by stories of the wartime years. Though he was too young to remember much first-hand, he had absorbed every detail from his parents and their friends. “The war was my childhood,” he says. “I grew up around people who survived it and I would see the effects of war on them: the post-traumatic stress. And as you grow up around those people it slowly passes on to you.”
These were the original skeptics of his idea last year to turn his parents' regular hostel into a siege-themed experience. “Nobody who survived this would ever want to sleep on a bomb shelter bed or inside a room that replicates the war,” he says, enunciating. “No-bo-dy. This is insane. But people want to experience something extraordinary. People are bored of—in this business—bunk beds and white walls. They want something different. We are different.”
Jasmin, Arijan's father, was 29 years old with a six-month-old baby when the war started. His job was to fix the phone cable that connected the frontline bases. "The telephone was like gold," he says. He would pull 48-hour shifts, strap as much wood as he could carry onto his back, and then run downhill to his house. Every moment of that 20 minute journey was a risk. "I'd go home and think, is someone dead or not?" It was close—when Jasmin rebuilt his roof after the war he found it filled with shrapnel.
Now he takes guests up the mountain overlooking the city to explore his old stomping grounds on the Sarajevo Siege Tour. He circles up the hillside, stopping along the way at bunkers buried under the tree cover. There were four front lines with bunkers every couple hundred feet, and driving along Jasmine spots these using the tin food cans still half-buried outside. He nimbly climbs over the brush and pulls branches aside to reveal concrete entrances, picks up discarded artillery shells and pockets them. When he came up here with a metal detector he found that the trees are still filled with bullets.
In 1984, the world came to Sarajevo when it hosted the winter Olympics. A decade later, the abandoned bobsled track was being used as a frontline by Serbian troops to fire on the city’s defenders fighters below. The graffiti-covered course still snakes down the hillside in dramatic bends. Brushing aside leaves and branches almost guarantees a metal reward.
A couple minutes walk south is the house where Jasmin was stationed maintaining the phone lines. Just one wall remains. Beneath it, Sarajevo is cupped within the lush mountains. But all is not as it appears. These front lines were heavily mined and remnants are still being uncovered. Jasmin pulls back some brush to show where a friend of his hid an old land mine he'd found to show tourists. He somewhat cavalierly rips down caution tape warning of the dangers, and says it’s safe to explore.
The next stop on his tour is a shabby cinder block home with a Sarajevo Rose in its driveway. Other than the visitors streaming in, the house on the city's outskirts by the airport is nondescript. And for good reason: Underneath the building is the "Tunnel of Life," a hand-dug passageway that was the sole supply route in and out of the city. Jasmin recalls he got out five times during the war to buy supplies like eggs and flour for his family. On one trip a man near him accidentally shot his friend dead in the darkness.
Though Jasmin and his family survived, they had no work, food or money after the siege lifted two decades ago. They opened a hostel in their home, but after seven years business fizzled out. Then their son struck upon an idea to make it themed and the War Hostel opened in June. It was fully booked almost every night through the summer. "My son is like my genie," he says, addressing his guests. "Now we understand: you want the experience."
They’re a bit surprised no one created such a place before. Arijan can imagine franchising what he’s done in Sarajevo across the world. There could be both both North and South themed Civil War hostels in America, he posits. But he’d prefer to keep his expansion opportunities stagnant. “The destiny of Sarajevo can happen to any city in the world,” Arijan says. “Hopefully people will learn from us.”