SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina Arijan Kurbasic, the manager of the War Hostel Sarajevo in the Bosnian capital, knows that his idea of hospitality is not to everyone’s taste and is ready to relax the house rules a bit.
He will, for example, turn down the volume on a sound system that, day and night, fills the place with the din of gunfire and explosions.
Getting to sleep can still be a challenge: There are no beds, only thin mattresses on the floor with no pillows or sheets, and heavy, scratchy blankets that create the feeling of sleeping with a dead horse.
The decor is hardly soothing — lots of guns and, in one room, a poster screaming ‘Death’ and ‘The End’.
And while other hotels offer luxury suites and sweeping views of Sarajevo’s old town to guests looking for a particularly memorable stay, Kurbasic offers the ultimate in self-deprivation — “the bunker,” a windowless, dungeon room so hellishly and deliberately uncomfortable that, he said, “it is insane to want to sleep there.”
A former Sarajevo tour guide, Kurbasic, 27, said he had quickly realised that what many tourists really wanted to know about was the glorious city’s agonies during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
“I decided to give people what they wanted,” he said.
What it meant to live through those times
At the war hostel, Kurbasic said his aim was not to create nostalgia for Europe’s worst bout of bloodletting since the Second World War, but simply to let guests, particularly younger ones, get a small idea of the discomfort and deprivations of wartime.
Millennials come and say, ‘This is so cool’. But it is not cool. It is not a game. If you grow up thinking war is a game, you will make some very bad decisions.
“Millennials come and say, ‘This is so cool’,” he said. “But it is not cool. It is not a game. If you grow up thinking war is a game, you will make some very bad decisions.”
Most of his visitors are from Europe, Australia and the United States, many of them too young to remember gruesome television images of Sarajevo’s misery during a 1,425-day siege by Serbian forces entrenched in the mountains surrounding the city.
“Locals are definitely not interested,” said Kurbasic, who was a young child during the war. “They lived it every day and want to forget.”
He has had few takers for the bunker, but demand has been reasonably strong for his less traumatic rooms.
He said he had initially considered cutting off the water in the hostel and forcing guests to collect it in buckets from outside, as most people in Sarajevo had to do during the war. But he decided that this would be going too far.
He also installed WiFi, bowing to what he said was his young clientele’s one non-negotiable demand.
An American guest had no problem with the constant sound of gunfire and sleeping on the floor without sheets, he said.
“But when I told her there is no internet, she said, ‘I’m leaving.’”
The hospitality industry’s term for what he offers is “dark tourism,” a niche but growing global market focused on places where terrible things happened.
These include Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; Nazi death camps like Auschwitz in Poland; and Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a former school turned into a torture and extermination center by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Sarajevo has an abundance of such places, including the spot where a Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in 1914, and set Europe on the road to the First World War, and the market where a mortar shell killed nearly 70 weekend shoppers in 1994.
Bosnia: Attraction No 1
But it was also in Bosnia that an early version of dark tourism took a particularly sinister turn, said Zijad Jusufovic, a survivor of the city’s wartime siege who now leads idiosyncratic tours of Sarajevo’s sites.
“This is attraction number one for dark tourism,” he said, standing amid a cluster of rocks high in the hills overlooking the city.
Another place Jusufovic likes to take visitors is Yugoslavia’s first private hotel, a mountain getaway for romantic trysts that, now a ruin, was used by Serb forces to pound the city with artillery.
War memories can make money
Bosnians started to be more open to war tourism once the authorities realised that there was money to be made, he said.
A Muslim family whose home near the Sarajevo airport was the starting point of a wartime tunnel dug under the runway began making a small fortune selling tickets to tourists who wanted to visit what had been the only relatively safe way in and out of the besieged city.
An American guest had no problem with the constant sound of gunfire and sleeping on the floor without sheets. But when I told her there is no internet, she said, ‘I’m leaving’.
Called the ‘Tunnel of Hope’, it was taken over by the government in 2013, and is now one of the city’s most popular attractions.
Marketing the war, however, is a tricky business, not least because there are still so many arguments about who did what to whom during fighting that pitched neighbours and friends into fratricidal conflict.
Kurbasic, the hostel manager, avoids such quarrels. “I’m really sick and tired of all the divisions in this country,” he said.
His only message, he said, is that guests should look at Sarajevo, now a vibrant, cosmopolitan city that hosts a celebrated annual film festival and is full of bars and hip clubs, and remember that “what happened here can happen wherever there are people”.
What’s the war hotel like?
It’s housed on two floors of [Kurbasic’s] parents’ large, ramshackle house near the former front line.
The hostel has a communal room that can sleep six guests on the floor and a more private room for single or double occupancy.
The bunker downstairs is for “very specific people who want to go the extra mile.” Designed to recreate the feel of a forest shelter for fighters, it is cheap — just 20 euros ($22.50) per person.
The cacophony of simulated war in the bunker is relentless, and cannot be switched off. Then there is the smoke, pumped out by a theatrical machine to create a choking fog.
The floor is made from packed mud, while the walls and ceiling consist of crudely cut logs. Sleeping, which is rare, is done on hard wooden boards without a mattress.
To add authenticity and detach guests from their peaceful, comfortable lives, cell phones, jewellery and watches are banned in the bunker.
It has a windup clock, but it is broken. It is set to the time guests arrive, meaning that since the hands do not move, time grinds to a standstill and leaves visitors to fret about why their ordeal is passing so slowly.
There are no windows and no lights. Guests are given a beat-up flashlight with batteries that are about to run out. That, Kurbasic said, ensures that they use it sparingly and get used to sitting in the dark.
Kurabsic greets guests wearing military fatigues, black boots, a helmet and a flak jacket, and asks them not to use his real name but to call him “Zero One,” his father’s code name during the conflict.
The New York Times News Service