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This Iconic Hotel Survived Sarajevo’s Siege, But Can It Survive COVID-19?

Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn hotel became an iconic landmark and symbol of survival during the 1992-95 siege of the Bosnian capital. Throughout the Bosnian War, the battered hotel stayed open and became a base for foreign journalists covering the conflict. Known today as Hotel Holiday, the building is now facing another existential crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the dramatic drop in tourism and a lack of guests, the hotel has threatened to shut down. But there remains a glimmer of hope after the Bosnian government recently eased restrictions for foreign visitors.

The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo first opened its doors for the 1984 Winter Olympics. The bright yellow building located in the center of Sarajevo is often compared with Lego blocks and was designed by renowned Bosnian architect Ivan Straus.

By the the start of the war in April 1992, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is now a convicted war criminal, had his temporary offices inside the hotel. After Karadzic fled, the hotel became a hub for foreign journalists who covered the nearly four-year-long siege of Sarajevo.

Events inside the hotel often resembled scenes from the movie Casablanca. It was a place where an eclectic cast of characters gathered at the end of a dangerous day.

A soldier with the NATO-led multinational Implementation Force (IFOR) stands watch with the badly hit Holiday Inn hotel in the background in December 1995.

A soldier with the NATO-led multinational Implementation Force (IFOR) stands watch with the badly hit Holiday Inn hotel in the background in December 1995.

“The Holiday Inn was a strange place. Almost like a fortress in the middle of the siege,” says Paul Lowe, a photographer who worked with the Magnum photo agency. He lived and worked in the hotel while covering the siege. The hotel was attacked many times, but Lowe says it was still the safest place for journalists.

Photographer Paul Lowe covered the Bosnian War.

Photographer Paul Lowe covered the Bosnian War.

“Very intriguing place. It was full of interesting characters, journalists who came from different places, myself included,” says Lowe.

From Olympic Luxury To Journalists’ Haven

The first hotel with an international brand in Sarajevo, the Holiday Inn was officially opened on the eve of the Winter Olympic Games in October 1983. During the Games it was the headquarters for the International Olympic Committee and its president, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Zahid Bukva has worked at the hotel since the Olympic Games, first as a waiter and then as a hall manager, a position that he still holds today. Bukva says that at that time the hotel was always full.

“Everything revolved around providing services for our guests,” Bukva recalls. During the Olympics, Bukva says, there were no empty rooms in Sarajevo. “At that time, there were about 300-400 workers in the hotel, maybe more, but certainly 400 during the Olympics.”

Holiday Inn staff during the siege of Sarajevo (left to right): Hajrudin Rovcanin, Slobodan Kakuca, and Zahid Bukva

Holiday Inn staff during the siege of Sarajevo (left to right): Hajrudin Rovcanin, Slobodan Kakuca, and Zahid Bukva

At the beginning of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Holiday Inn became a place where political elites gathered, explains Kenneth Morrison, professor at De Montfort University in Britain and author of the 2016 book Sarajevo Holiday Inn: On the Front Lines Of Politics And War.

“It was also a hotel where Radovan Karadzic and the crisis committee of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) had their temporary headquarters in early 1992,” Morrison tells RFE/RL.

But the most important guests of the hotel during the war were the numerous foreign journalists who lived and worked in the hotel from 1992 to 1995. The building was located near the defensive lines and was shelled countless times.

Dutch UN spokesman Major Rob Annink shows a map to journalists at the Holiday Inn in April 1994. He's pointing out the position where a British Sea Harrier jet was shot down over the besieged Bosnian enclave of Gorazde.

Dutch UN spokesman Major Rob Annink shows a map to journalists at the Holiday Inn in April 1994. He’s pointing out the position where a British Sea Harrier jet was shot down over the besieged Bosnian enclave of Gorazde.

“Believe me, there wasn’t a piece of glass left anywhere in the windows in the hotel, it was all broken, shattered,” Bukva says. “I think that one grenade came from Vraca [a hillside Sarajevo neighborhood], and went through two walls, the bathroom, and crashed into the staircase where it exploded. You can imagine what a disaster it was.”

Workers place plastic sheets over the shattered lobby windows of the Holiday Inn in September 1992.

Workers place plastic sheets over the shattered lobby windows of the Holiday Inn in September 1992.

Strong Together

There were only a few safe areas inside the 10-story building.

“It was very dangerous when there was a lot of shooting going on around the hotel, and of course they were shooting at the hotel itself,” Bukva says. “We would hide in the evening. Believe me, the journalists would follow us to the ground floor, where there used to be a night restaurant. We hid and were safe there. Once we even all slept downstairs together. We weren’t safe anywhere upstairs.”

No matter how bad things got, the hotel staff still had journalists from all over the world as their guests, and they did their utmost to provide hospitality. “We provided those reporters with services to make them feel at home,” Bukva says.

One of the hotel guests during the war was CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. “The Holiday Inn was home for so many of us covering the Bosnian War and the siege of Sarajevo throughout the 1990s,” she tells RFE/RL. “It is forever linked with that time and our efforts to report the facts while under fire.”

The Holiday Inn in the winter of 1992

The Holiday Inn in the winter of 1992

During the war, the hotel didn’t have regular water or electricity. As for food, the journalists and hotel staff pulled together.

Bukva remembers U.S. war correspondent Kurt Schork, who covered the siege of Sarajevo and was later killed in 2000 while on assignment in Sierra Leone.

“Kurt Schork, rest in peace, I remember that man very well. An extremely good journalist,” Bukva says. “He went to the town of Kiseljak, I think, and brought back a few dozens of eggs. He was a vegetarian and asked me to keep the eggs, so that no one would take them. And then, every morning when he would get up, I prepared scrambled eggs or sunny side up. For dinner, he ate mostly rice with sauce, like we all did, if there was tomato sauce that came with the humanitarian aid. We simply managed, and they helped us,” recalls Bukva, who says the hotel guests and staff felt like a family.

Zahid Bukva (left) stands next to CNN correspondent Jackie Shymanski in Sarajevo.

Zahid Bukva (left) stands next to CNN correspondent Jackie Shymanski in Sarajevo.

The journalists themselves testify to the resourcefulness of the Holiday Inn staff. Zoran Stevanovic, who worked for Reuters Television during the war, says the only thing he can say about them is that they were perfect.

“I can’t give a better compliment. I think they were the best hotel staff I have ever seen in my life. In an atmosphere where a sniper is shooting for two hours at a flagpole in front of the Holiday, you have smiling people working, even though there is a complete chaos outside,” Stevanovic says.

Paul Lowe says he never knew how, but the hotel managed to have water and electricity for at least part of the day through most of the war, allowing journalists to work on their stories.

“It was very unrealistic. You go outside, take pictures, grenades fall. And then you go back to the hotel, there are people drinking coffee, you go to dinner, sometimes by candlelight if there is no electricity. And then you would be served by waiters in suits that were fantastic,” Lowe says. “When you go between outside and the hotel it was like traveling in a parallel universe. It’s like in the movie Casablanca. A real war hotel.”

Holiday Inn staff

Holiday Inn staff

The surreal scenes also reminded Stevanovic of the classic Hollywood movie. “In Casablanca, you have a bar where everyone gathers, and here you have a Holiday Inn where everyone gathers,” he says.

It took nerves and a little savvy to live out of a hotel located in the middle of a besieged city where grenades fall every day. Everyone always knew which side of the hotel was safe.

The Bosnian parliament building burns after being hit by Serbian tank fire, as seen from the destroyed upper floor of the Holiday Inn Hotel in September 1992.

The Bosnian parliament building burns after being hit by Serbian tank fire, as seen from the destroyed upper floor of the Holiday Inn Hotel in September 1992.

“The front of the hotel overlooking the National Museum and the Grbavica [neighborhood] was completely destroyed and those rooms were not used. Only the rooms on the side and the rooms facing the Marijin Dvor [neighborhood] were used,” Stevanovic says.

He says the hotel represented a kind of false normal life and also showed how collegial journalists are.

Zoran Stevanovic (left) and French journalist Paul Marchand sit in the Holiday Inn.

Zoran Stevanovic (left) and French journalist Paul Marchand sit in the Holiday Inn.

“I never saw journalists share information so quickly and easily again, neither in Baghdad nor in Pakistan. It was enough to whistle in the lobby: ‘Hey, is anyone going to RTV [the state radio and television building]?’ There was no competition at all.”

When not reporting on the war, journalists passed the time by playing poker or piano. Stevanovic recalls there were also some unusual ways of having fun, like tying a mountain rope to the top floor and lowering yourself down in the hotel lobby.

Zoran Stevanovic descends on a rope in the hotel lobby.

Zoran Stevanovic descends on a rope in the hotel lobby.

“Paul Marchand, who unfortunately committed suicide, worked for all the French-speaking radio stations in the world. One day, he came up with the insane idea of using mountaineering ropes that allow you to descend from great heights,” Stevanovic recalls. “He wanted to do it on the outside of the Momo and Uzeir skyscrapers (two business building in the center of Sarajevo). We told him that he was crazy and that a sniper would take him down. So we did it from the inside of the Holiday Inn lobby from the top floor.” .

French conductor Hugues Reiner hangs from the roof of the shell-scarred Holiday Inn during a Sarajevo philharmonic concert in 1993.

French conductor Hugues Reiner hangs from the roof of the shell-scarred Holiday Inn during a Sarajevo philharmonic concert in 1993.

Rich History, Uncertain Future

The hotel began welcoming “normal guests” again in February 1996, says professor Kenneth Morrison.

In 2013, the hotel’s Holiday Inn franchise agreement expired and the name was changed to Hotel Holiday. Today, the building is owned by the Hotel Europe Group, which owns most of the Sarajevo’s major hotels. Last year, the group announced that it would open a multiplex cinema next to the hotel in partnership with the Sarajevo Film Festival.

“When they took ownership of the hotel, there was a renaissance. Plans to build a cineplex next to the hotel would not only provide additional space for the festival, but would also secure the future of the hotel. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis, which is very damaging to the tourism industry, put many hotels under considerable financial strain,” Morrison says.

The empty lobby of the Holiday Hotel

The empty lobby of the Holiday Hotel

Today, due to the pandemic, there are no guests at the Holiday Hotel. Zahid Bukva says that he could not have dreamed that something like this would happen.

“Is there is anything else that can attack us? There was a war and now the coronavirus. This is unthinkable. There are huge losses here when it comes to hospitality. Last year, this hall and reception area, and even the rooms were full, it was full of tourists. Now there are huge losses, I think all the hotels will have to close. Unfortunately, this one too,” he says.

All reservations have been canceled until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of dollars in revenue has been lost, according to Rasim Bajrovic, the owner and general manager of the Holiday Hotel.

The group announced that it would have to “close the most prestigious hotels in Sarajevo if the borders don’t open.”

On July 14, Bosnia’s Council of Ministers provided Sarajevo’s struggling hotels a glimmer of hope. It announced that Bosnia’s borders would be open to EU citizens from the union’s visa-free Schengen travel zone if they could provide a negative coronavirus test taken within the last 48 hours.

“It is good news for the tourism and hotel industry. It’s a step towards saving our industry,” Bajrovic says.

Holiday Hotel staff stand ready in July 2020.

Holiday Hotel staff stand ready in July 2020.

For those who worked and found refuge at the Holiday Inn during the war, Sarajevo would be unthinkable without its iconic yellow hotel.

“It was a symbol of community for me and all foreign journalists in Sarajevo. It’s an unfortunate situation where the Holiday Inn might not be there tomorrow. I think if the hotel disappears, a large part of the city will disappear with it,” Stevanovic says.

For professor Morrison, the Holiday Inn is more than a hotel. He points out that although the hotel is only 37 years old, it has a rich and fascinating history.

Kenneth Morrison

Kenneth Morrison

“I have to tell you this story. When I was doing research for the book, I could not find a guest book for the period 1984-1992. It disappeared during the siege,” Morrison says. “And then I got a call from an American journalist who told me that he smuggled the book [out] in August 1992 and forgot about it. He agreed to send me the book, which I then personally took to Hajro Rovcanin, who has been working at the hotel since 1984. It was wonderful to return something to the hotel. It was like giving a piece of history back to the city. “

After more than three decades at the hotel as an employee, Zahid Bukva says he plans to retire in November. He hopes the hotel will stay open after he leaves.

“This is a symbol of the city, a symbol of the state. Many guests and statesmen have visited and slept here,” he says. “It would be a great pity to close it. If we could somehow work the way we did during the war, when we somehow managed. Good people can find a way so that it doesn’t close.”

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