Thirty years ago this week, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo, the capital of present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ten years later, the Olympic site, the city, and its inhabitants were gripped in a ferocious war that still resonates today. As the Sochi Olympics wind down, I thought it would be a good time to travel to Sarajevo and visit the former Olympic sites. I wanted to meet people who were at the games and who also lived through the brutal three-and-half-year war that raged from April 1992 to February 1996.
This was my first time in Bosnia. I was greeted at the airport by Tanya and Ken, both of whom were born in Sarajevo. They spent their late teens holed up in basements as the war took hold. We drove out of the airport past some bombed-out ruins on the way to the city. I asked a very pregnant Tanya about her time during the war, and this is what she had to say:
“I was 17 years old, in high school, and had no idea that war was about to begin. In our school at that time, we were all mixed ethnically and had all grown up together. The first violence I saw, or felt, was during the protests leading up to placement of the barricades. That was in March 1992. Soon the city was under siege. It happened overnight in early April 1992.
“My mother, who is a Bosnian Muslim, told me at the time that Bosnian-Serb soldiers, together with the Yugoslavian People's Army (JNA), were surrounding the city and starting to kill civilians in the streets. When I asked my mother, ‘Why are they killing people?’, she answered that they are trying to rid Bosnia of Muslims, who make up the majority of the population in Sarajevo.
“Politically, at that time, Bosnia-Herzegovina wanted to follow Croatia and Slovenia into independence, which they had gained a couple of years before. On February 22, 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina held its first national referendum for independence to separate itself from Yugoslavian rule. The result of the vote after February 22 was a resounding yes to independence, but representatives of the Bosnian-Serbs had boycotted the process and then one month later the war began.
“In the first few weeks, the Bosnian-Serb army cut off the communications with the outside by bombing the post office and telephone exchanges. They cut the power and water and surrounded [the city] with guns. That was the beginning of our almost four-year nightmare."
The Olympic rings in the Sarajevo City Center.
“Living conditions during the war were horrible,” Tanya said. “I was 17, but I aged very quickly. We could not go out because there were snipers and shelling everywhere. I lost many friends and saw so many dead bodies—too many to remember. I became numb to it all. Every day, someone died. All I wanted was for it to be over. My family used to exchange gold jewelry for flour to make bread. We had no fruit for three years.”
Children gather at the basin of the ski jumps at Igman.
The 1984 Sarajevo bobsled run on Mount Trebević as it is now. The three-kilometer-long run winds its way down through the woods to a bombed-out spectator area below.
The remains of a bombed-out building in central Sarajevo. In the background is an entire hill dedicated to victims of the war.
The finish of the bobsled run on Mount Trebević.
This tunnel was built by the Bosnian Army during the Bosnian War to link the city with Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the Sarajevo Airport—the airport itself was controlled by the United Nations. The Bosnian Army used this tunnel to shuttle food and humanitarian supplies into otherwise landlocked Sarajevo neighborhoods. It also helped the Army bypass the international arms embargo and smuggle weapons into the city.
The northern exit of the tunnel was hidden in a house only a tenth of a mile from the airport. During the war, the tunnel was constantly in use. Between 3,000 and 4,000 soldiers, as well as civilians, traveled through the tunnel daily, which passed directly under the airport's runway.
This is where skiers were presented with their medals after winning events in the 1984 Olympics. It was also the exact spot where the Bosnian army executed many prisoners during the war years of 1992–1995.
The Bosnian-Serbs planted thousands of mines in the hills around the Olympic sites. Today, there are still many left unexploded in the off-limits areas.
A graveyard at the Igman Ski Center honoring Bosnian soldiers who lost their lives in the hills above Sarajevo during the 1992–1995 war.
Snezana was 24 years old when the Olympics came to town. “It was a beautiful time to be in Sarajevo. Teams of athletes and people came from all over the world to see us and enjoy our city. Ten years later, we were living in hell. This building behind me was the Olympic Hotel in Igman, where the skiing happened. It was also the place that my husband was imprisoned and tortured during the war. He was a Catholic Bosnian-Croat and captured by the Bosnian army. He only escaped because one of the soldiers in the prison recognized him from his primary school and let him free one night. He then ran 30 kilometers through mine-infested hills back into the city. I was very happy to see him.”
The view from a former motel near the bobsled track on Mount Trebević. During the 1984 Olympics, this building housed guests and spectators watching bobsledding. During the war, it was an artillery point from which Bosnian-Serbs would fire guns into the city below.
Tanya and Mirsada Kosic stand at the grave of one of the ten close relatives that they lost during the course of the war.
Mirsada Kosic was a midwife in the children’s hospitable both during the Olympics and the war. She helped deliver hundreds of babies during the siege of Sarajevo, in terrible conditions. She clearly recounts her worst memory of the war:
“It was May 26, 1992. The hospital was being attacked on all sides by the Bosnian-Serbs, and we lost six new-born babies to the shelling. It was the most awful night of my life.”
Two months later, her brother was killed in an ambush nearby.