Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Bunker

It was July in Bosnia, and the one hundred twenty-six degree breeze ruffled my hair and lifted the ringlets off my neck.  It was so hot I would not have been able to concentrate under any normal circumstance, but this was anything but mundane.  A ruggedly handsome older man stood tall and proud before us as he relayed a gripping first-hand account of the Siege of Sarajevo.  The voice of Retired General Jovan Divjak of the Bosnian Army commanded our attention.  His French was impeccable, and my fellow scouts and I felt honored to hear his story straight from the source.  I looked up at the stone pillars of the synagogue behind the general as he spoke.  We were standing atop one of three important hills in Sarajevo, the site of the Jewish Cemetery.  Looking out across the valley, General Divjak pointed to the Christian and Muslim cemeteries on their respective hills; he demonstrated with large arm movements the positions of his men and those of the Serbs and Croats as all three armies gathered to fight for the city on a warm May day in 1992. 
We were then escorted to a bunker near Konjic, just south of Sarajevo, which had been built in the seventies as a recondite emergency shelter for Josip Broz Tito, his family, and his aides.  Our military-grade van turned up a long, one-lane mountain road, slowly climbing for what seemed like an hour.  When finally the van arrived, we were greeted by several average-looking homes looking out over a fish hatchery.  I was somewhat disappointed; besides the soldiers milling about, clad in combat uniforms and armed with Kalashnikovs, this place didn’t seem to be anything special.  Just then, a garage door opened, revealing a tunnel twelve feet tall and infinitely long.  It was only then that I realized the significance of my visit.  
My fascination with the history of the Bosnian War and the region itself led me to ask many questions of General Divjak, every one of which he warmly and fully answered.  Although I had been living in Brussels for a year and spoke French quite fluently, my slight accent and use of expressions gave me away; in a group of Belgians he quickly singled me out and asked about my origins.  Upon learning of my American roots, I was quickly informed that I was the first American civilian ever to visit the bunker.  Much of the Bosnian military did not know of the shelter’s existence.  Though its location was no longer considered top secret, it was certainly not advertised to the public.  I thought to myself that I would never forget this place.  A musty smell permeated my nostrils as we walked by whitewashed walls; maximum security, airtight steel doors; completely furnished yet untouched bedrooms, offices, and conference rooms; and impeccably organized rooms for code-cracking which featured dusty typewriters, telephones, and radios – state of the art equipment in Socialist Yugoslavia in the 1970s. 
the hills surrounding Sarajevo

looking out over the fish hatchery

crammed in the back of the van

the entrance to the bunker

electrical room

General Divjak presents desks completely equipped and untouched since the 70s

the conference room

General Divjak & assistant address us in the conference room.
Note the framed photo of Tito on the wall.

Josep Broz Tito's secret bunker was revealed to the public just last week (see this article, and this one).  It is now in the process of being turned into a contemporary art museum.  I found these articles by chance while revisiting my memories this week.  When I looked back through my blog posts, I was surprised I hadn't told this story yet, as it's definitely one of my favourites. 


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