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Hundreds Pass Through Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope EDITOR’S NOTE - The writer was allowed to

October 19, 1993

Hundreds Pass Through Sarajevo’s Tunnel of Hope EDITOR’S NOTE - The writer was allowed to pass through a tunnel under the Sarajevo airport leading from the besieged city to government-held territory beyond. To protect the secret locations of its two endpoints, most people are blindfolded as they are taken there. Escorts took the writer to the tunnel at night with no light and a photographer was not allowed.

--- By AIDA CERKEZ Associated Press Writer SA (AP) _ - By AIDA CERKEZ Associated Press Writer

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) - Four-year-old Edin perched on the edge of a chair, listening intently as his mother bound plastic bags on his tiny legs.

″We are going to crawl through the darkness now for some time. But Mama will be holding your hand,″ Esma told her son. ″When you see light again, you know who will be standing there? Papa.″

As the young mother prepared her son, 50 other people, carrying backpacks and wearing boots or plastic bags to keep their feet dry, milled about a table as a Bosnian government soldier sorted out their papers.

The group would depart shortly on a subterranean journey out of what locals call ″the biggest prison on the planet.″

Sarajevo has been besieged for 18 months by Serb forces who block access in and out of the Bosnian capital on three sides. The fourth side - bounded by the airport - is controlled by the United Nations. Under an accord that opened Sarajevo airport to international relief flights in June 1992, U.N. officials agreed to prevent people from crossing airport grounds.

On the Sarajevo side of the airport runway lies the front-line suburb of Dobrinja. Just 750 yards away on the other side of the runway is government- controlled Butmir.

The tunnel connects the two.

Dug during the summer, the dark, dank tunnel is only about 5-feet high because the water table prevented engineers from digging deeper. That forces those making the 45-minute journey to walk hunched over, sloshing through ankle-deep mud and water.

The tunnel is wide enough only for one person to pass easily. When the traffic is two way, travelers turn into contortionists, crunching up against the dirt walls while crouched over sideways.

After a long wait, it was Edin and Esma’s turn to disappear into the darkness, broken only by the beams of a few flashlights.

″Are you scared?″ Esma, loaded down with bags, asked as she led her son through the tunnel.

″No,″ he said quietly, his head down.

″Just a little bit farther. You can make it, can’t you, my darling?″

″Yes,″ came a tiny voice from the dark.

″He is a little hero, that’s why he is going to see his dad now,″ added a man’s voice, encouraging the child.

The column of people stopped to let three elderly women, also overloaded with bags, pass in the opposite direction on their way back to Sarajevo.

″Oh, God, look what has come upon us,″ said one of the women, breathing heavily as she passed.

The tunnel smells of sweat and mold. Overhead rafters, constructed of wood and old streetcar tracks, complicate the obstacle course. One moment of inattention and travelers bang their heads and remember to bend back down. It hurts either way.

Some say the rafters are marked with blood. This time, blood could be seen on the ground not covered by water. A war casualty was carried through the tunnel into Sarajevo just before Esma and Edin’s group entered.

There was no evidence of arms or ammunition being smuggled through the tunnel. And because the tunnel officially does not exist, no one even discusses that possibility.

The silent march was punctuated by the sounds of heads banging against rafters, followed by curses. ″Golden runway,″ someone mumbled sarcastically.

Before the tunnel was completed, the only way out of the city was a nighttime dash across the airport runway, covered by Serb snipers and patrolled by U.N. armored personnel carriers trying to enforce the airport agreement.

Many still prefer the runway dance with death, either because they cannot get permission to use the tunnel or they’d rather brave sniper fire than the claustrophobic dark, wet tunnel.

Most Sarajevans fortunate enough to gain access to the tunnel apparently find their way to it through a web of informal contacts that sidesteps any official acknowledgement that a tunnel exists.

Sarajevo Mayor Muhamed Kresevljakovic says hundreds of people have crossed into Sarajevo over the airport runway, but there is no estimate of the number of people who might have used the tunnel.

Esma and her little boy, nicknamed ″Edo,″ are from Hrasnica, a government village next to Butmir.

When the war began in April 1992, her husband, Rasim, sent his wife and son to Sarajevo to live with relatives. They thought that as a big city, a European capital and a former Olympic village, Sarajevo would not be allowed to suffer.

Now, with a second winter approaching, Esma and Edin were heading back to Rasim, who stayed behind to fight. The village of Hrasnica, with Mount Igman at its back can at least offer firewood and the possibility of food smuggled over the mountain from other government-controlled areas. Sarajevo was stripped of most of its wood last winter.

Finally, the group reached the end. One by one, they emerged from the dark hole - wet, dirty, exhausted.

″Edo, my Edo. Esma, Esma,″ yelled a tall, dark-haired man in fatigues.

″Rasim,″ the woman cried, trying to trace her husband’s voice in the crowd waiting outside. Elbowing his way to the front, Rasim gathered his wife and son in his big arms, where they seemed to disappear.

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