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Bosnia Remembers When The World Looked Away

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I think that one of the great works of humankind runs below an airport runway in Sarajevo.

Sixty-six feet of a 3,000-foot-long tunnel built during the Siege of Sarajevo have been restored. Twenty years ago this weekend, the city was surrounded by Serb armies, who rained down mortar, rockets and sniper fire.

United Nations soldiers, called Blue Helmets, arrived as peacekeepers. But they became targets themselves and mostly just oversaw the siege. When some Sarajevans tried to flee across the runway into free Bosnian territory, they were shot down by Serb snipers. U.N. soldiers had orders to stop them.

The world saw the "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims and mixed-ethnic people in vivid living color. But Europeans looked and saw the ghosts of World War I. Americans saw the ghosts of Vietnam. We changed channels.

So Sarajevans began to dig.

Miners, plumbers and engineering professors clawed the tunnel out of the ground with shovels, kitchen spoons — and fingers. They propped up the earth with old car doors and tires, because Sarajevans had cut down all the trees in the city for heat.

One side dug from free Bosnian territory, one side from the besieged city. They couldn't use radio to coordinate — that would have been heard by the Serbs or Blue Helmets — so men and women died running across the runway in the dark just to whisper, "We went another foot today."

Water flooded the tunnel. Shells shook the earth, trapping those who dug. But the tunnel became a lifeline out of the longest siege of modern history. It brought out sick and wounded, and eventually brought in tons of food, bandages, bullets, onions, apples, antibiotics, cigarettes and condoms.

I used to despair to return from reporting the siege and hear smart people say, "What can you do? Those people over there have been fighting each other for five centuries." Actually, people in Sarajevo had mostly gotten along for five centuries.

By the time NATO got involved, most of the dying had been done. Yesterday in Sarajevo, they set out a river of 11,541 empty red chairs through the streets to remember those who died. It might remind us today that while getting involved can be costly, there is also a cost in lives for not acting.

Over 44 months of war, Sarajevans refused the appeals of governments and prestigious international groups to divide their country into ethnic enclaves. I remember a Bosnian government minister saying, "After all these centuries trying to build civilization, are we to go back to being tribes?"

While the world looked away from them, Sarajevans dug a tunnel. They stood up for civilization.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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