Sarajevo's Holiday Inn: Eventful past of historic hotel

Holiday Inn, Sarajevo

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Sarajevo is a city where the past constantly resonates, and next year it will commemorate two of the biggest moments in its history, writes Kenneth Morrison.

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, the spark that lit the fuse of World War One.

It is also 30 years since the 1984 Winter Olympics, the high point in the city's modern history.

Sarajevo's iconic Holiday Inn hotel was built for those Olympics, and has had a front row seat for the tumultuous events that have unfolded in Bosnia in the past 30 years.

Start Quote

From [the hotel] you didn't go out to the war, the war came in to you”

End Quote Martin Bell Former BBC correspondent

It remains familiar to many around the world, who remember the news reports filed from the hotel at the height of the 1990s Bosnian war, when reporters used it as their base and it was regularly shelled.

Designed by the celebrated Bosnian architect Ivan Straus, and built in 1982-83, it remains Sarajevo's most aesthetically interesting building, though arguably not its most aesthetically pleasing.

Facade 'a joke'

In mid-1983, as the exterior of the building gradually emerged, it became a source of controversy. The bold yellow, ochre, brown and grey exterior did not hold universal appeal, and many stood aghast.

Construction workers, according to Straus, "thought it was a joke".

"The original scale model had been designed with a similar yellow facade, but no-one expected that the actual exterior of the hotel would be same colour."

But what mattered to the city far more was the delivery of a successful Winter Olympics, and the opening of the hotel in October 1983, by the then president of the International Olympic Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, set Sarajevo on the road to what was indeed to be a hugely successful Games.

Holiday Inn, Sarajevo showing bomb damage The Holiday Inn sustained shelling damage but was not often a deliberate target

The Olympics passed, but the reputation of the city - and the hotel - was established. The Holiday Inn's clients included international and domestic music stars, sportsmen, actors and, of course, politicians. It remained the place to be seen in Sarajevo, a byword for sophistication.

By the early 1990s, as the Yugoslav crisis intensified, it was regularly used by political parties as a meeting place.

The Bosnian-Serb Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), led by Radovan Karadzic, held numerous meetings in the hotel, and it was, by February 1992, the temporary home of the Karadzic family.

But, on 6 April 1992, as demonstrators massed outside the Bosnian parliament building and then marched on the hotel, shots were allegedly fired from within the building by snipers loyal to Mr Karadzic. The hotel was then stormed by Bosnian government forces and the snipers arrested, by which time Mr Karadzic and his entourage had fled.

Bosnian Serb forces were surrounding the city, and in the following days and weeks, the siege of Sarajevo tightened. Numerous international news agencies established their bureaux in the hotel, and for the next three years their employees were the hotel's most regular paying guests.

Survival strategies

Located on "Sniper Alley", the area around the hotel was one of the most dangerous in the city, in immediate proximity to the front line.

The BBC correspondent, Martin Bell, described the Holiday Inn during the siege as "ground zero".

"From there," he said, "you didn't go out to the war, the war came in to you."

Staff at Holiday Inn, Sarajevo, for New Year's Eve buffet, 1993 The hotel's staff always tried to keep up appearances, including for the New Year's Eve buffet in 1993

Throughout the siege, the hotel, though hardly providing luxury, functioned. Amira Delalic, who worked as a receptionist, says the hotel's staff "developed their own survival strategies" in order to preserve a semblance of normality.

Food for the guests was often cooked on an open fire in the kitchen, and oil for the hotel's electricity generator was bought on the black market with the foreign currency brought by journalists.

Water was often not available, and almost never hot. However bed linen was changed regularly, unless it was impossible to do so.

Waiting staff kept up appearances by serving drinks in neatly ironed jackets, white shirts and bow ties.

The staff, some dodging snipers' bullets to come to work, mastered the art of hostelry in wartime.

"It was," says Ms Delalic, "hard to be professional under such dangerous circumstances. We did what we could to maintain a decent level of service, but it was very far from what we could provide during pre-war times."

The siege lasted for more than three years - the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare.

The spring and summer of 1992 was the worst period for the hotel. Its then manager estimated that the hotel had been hit more than 100 times in the early weeks of the siege.

However it was not deliberately targeted that often and, in comparison to neighbouring buildings, was relatively untouched. That led many of the resident journalists to speculate that an agreement had been reached between the Bosnian government and the besieging Serb nationalist forces to preserve the hotel.

Uncertain future

Following the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in December 1995, which brought the 1992-95 Bosnian war to an end, the hotel accommodated many of the army of "internationals" that descended upon Sarajevo as post-war reconstruction began. But, as international engagement in Bosnia was scaled down, the hotel's fortunes began to change.

Sarajevo Olympics opening ceremony The Sarajevo Olympics were a great success

The hotel was initially privatised in 2000, has changed hands subsequently and has suffered, as have many enterprises in Bosnia, from the impact of the global economic crisis, and the country's ongoing political paralysis.

As it enters it fourth decade - now called the Olympic Hotel Holiday Sarajevo - it faces an uncertain future in an increasingly competitive market.

But the management are convinced that the hotel remains unique. Its quality control manager, Alena Bukvic, recognises the current challenges but maintains that: "The hotel is an important symbol of Sarajevo, architecturally and historically, and is instantly recognised by visitors to Sarajevo. It has a real history, and that's what sets us apart from our competitors."

Despite its name change, for the vast majority of the citizens of Sarajevo, and those familiar with the city's landmarks, it remains simply The Holiday Inn.

Dr Kenneth Morrison is a Reader in Modern Southeast European History, De Montfort University, Leicester

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