Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tunnel Vision

You tend to see corruption everywhere in Bosnia and I am never sure if it’s because we specialize at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo on organized crime and corrupt leadership or just because Bosnia actually is really, by all possible measures, one of the most corrupt places in Europe.

One in every three Bosnians has come face to face with it, according to an EU-funded study by the Center for the Study of Democracy in Bulgaria -- a country qualified to recognize corruption.

That tends to skew your perception. When you see the street and sidewalks ripped up for repaving, you figure the new stones were illegally quarried. You deal with the mean, rude cabbies who park near the Cathedral in the center of Old Town and know that these guys don’t worry about making customers happy because they have friends in high enough places to operate out of the best stand in the city. You see big houses in posh and hilly neighborhoods and you guess “Mafioso.” Job promotions, high grades, awards, a nice apartment, a quick appointment to see a cardiologist. Each of those is a signal here of favoritism, nepotism or cronyism.

The cynicism is deep, earned and debilitating. It’s hard for journalists or activists to rouse people to take umbrage – much less action. Naturally enough, they think why bother? Things never change. They never have.

But even against that setting it has been depressing to learn this summer about the . A recent Slobodna Bosna magazine article labeled it “The Biggest Fraud in Sarajevo.”

 The Tunnel is a top tourist attraction in Bosnia now that brings in busloads of internationals. Akin to visiting Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin or the cemeteries of Normandy, tourists come to pay tribute to the human spirit and to the unquenchable urge for freedom.  Back in 1993, the Bosnian Army made a bold move to break a brutal siege of the city by Bosnian Serbs. Soldiers dug a 1,000-meter escape route under the airport, the one spot in a perimeter around the city the Serbs did not hold. Hundreds had died trying to race across the airport above ground, -- so working in secret and in the dark the Army clawed out a cramped crawlspace through which food and medicine could come into Sarajevo and the wounded could be taken out.

Sarajevans believe the lifeline saved them.

But after the war ended in 1995 the tunnel was mostly forgotten and people tried to move on with their lives. But the Kolars did not forget. The Army had confiscated their house in Bitmir near the airport when the Tunnel went in. Shells destroyed part of it, but the family lived on there right next to the busy tunnel traffic.

When the war ended the family preserved a small section of the Tunnel that has now mostly collapsed and they saved photos, stretchers, food containers and other artifacts of the tunnel runs. They let people come in to be reminded.
Gradually, the Americans and Europeans who flooded Sarajevo after the war began to hear of the Kolars and came to visit too. The family began charging internationals – but not Bosnians – a fee. Word spread and it was all favorable. Check out the TripAdvisor reports even know to see what I mean.

Around 2005, as the 10-year anniversary of the war passed, international reports – I worked on some even myself -- bemoaned the lack of attention Sarajevo and Bosnia state officials were giving the Tunnel. The conventional wisdom was that it was being ignored the same way other historical treasures in this country have been overlooked because of ethnic prejudice. Muslims care about the Tunnel, of course, but not so much the Bosnian Serbs who launched the siege.

Yet at the 20-year anniversary mark of the war, the Tunnel is well on the way to elevation as a full-fledged museum. Sarajevo Canton officials have drawn up plans to redig and shore up the full length of the tunnel and to install a tram that tourists will ride under the airport from one end of it to the other.

So, is this then, a rare good news story in troubled and roiled Bosnia? Not a chance.

Slobodna Bosna, a magazine not renowned for it accuracy, ran a report on the Tunnel last month that boiled down to this: The entrance to the tunnel was not in the Kolar house at all, but actually in a house nearby owned by the Bijelonja family. Through their doors passed all those hundreds headed underground. Officials expropriated their home and in all the years since they have been fighting in vain to get compensation for their loss. The courts have backed them, human rights organizations have backed them and still they have not gotten anything.

Meanwhile, the story goes, the politically connected Kolars got to keep their house, got compensation as well to buy a big new house to live in outside the city while they are pulling down at least 300 KM (about $180) a day from tourists.

What?  As a journalist I marveled that there could be a dispute over the location of such a well-known landmark.

Aida Cherkez, the staffer who covered the war for and is still the Associated Press bureau chief in Sarajevo, gives one clue to the puzzle. There were two entrances to the tunnel – one for the military, and the journalists like her who covered them, was through the Kolars’ house. But the official entrance, one added later to handle large numbers of people going through, Cherkez said, was added through the neighboring house. She used both entrances.

She remembers emerging from the dankness hundreds of time at Kolars – and taking a cup of water from grandmother Shida Kolar who stationed herself at the doorway. After the war Cherkez wrote a story about the old woman who always made her, a rare woman coming out of the hole with all those men, sit and rest a while.

A CIN colleague dug up the cantonal records on the Tunnel museum project and they confirm Cherkez’s memory. You can see on maps even if you don’t understand Bosnian that the Tunnel ran through both houses and that one was expropriated and the other was not.

OK, but this does not explain why government officials would undercut the Bijelonjas and not tell the full truth of the tunnel layout. An official plaque hangs on the Kolar house saying that a Serb grenade went off “in this spot “on May 7, 1995, killing civilians waiting to use the tunnel.

But the grenade made a hole in the Bijelonja house, and that is where people died.

What’s the point of such deception? And why would the government not pay the Bijelonjas what they are asking for – it’s only the equivalent of less than $15,000 – which even a poor government like this one could handle.

And what is the role of the Kolars in all this? Did the family pull strings to get special treatment? Are they complicit in historical distortion? Did they calculatedly change the myth of the tunnel and cut out their neighbors?

The story has engendered plenty of other bad-mouthing of the Kolars. – that they don’t pay taxes, on this tourism treasure,  that Grandma Shida charged soldiers for those drinks of water.

As a journalist I want to see motives and evidence before I flinging accusations around. For a week now I’ve been trying out theories and looking up at old stories done about the tunnel including a 2006 documentary “The Tunnel and Other Lies”  available on YouTube that goes over the same material as the magazine. And it doesn’t make sense.

Can’t it just be that the Kolars were patriotic and sharp at business – and maybe even lucky? I asked a colleague.

He openly scoffed at my American naiveté.  “Sure, let’s give the Kolars the benefit of the doubt. We all want Bosnia to succeed.

“There is no luck involved,” he said flatly. “He makes more in on year than I do in a lifetime. Luck? Where do you think we live…in Vermont

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