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Monday, 24 October 2016

Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn: On the Frontline of Politics and War

Adis Merdzanovic (Junior Research Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford)

The Holiday Inn hotel in Sarajevo has a particular place in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s history. Designed by the Bosnian architect Ivan Štraus, and built before the 1984 Winter Olympics to house foreign dignitaries such as the former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, it gained particular notoriety in the lead up to, and during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. It was a regular meeting place for political elites – it was, for example, where Alija Izetbegović formally launched the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) in 1990 and, later, the informal headquarters of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) under the leadership of Radovan Karadžić. The SDS used the hotel as a meeting place and by February 1992 it had become home to their ‘crisis headquarters’, from where party leaders organised barricades on ‘referendum weekend’ of 29 February/1 March 1992. And on 6 April 1992 the fateful sniper shots fired into the protesting crowds heralding the beginning of the conflict, are alleged to have come from somewhere in the building. Finally, during the war, the hotel was omnipresent in international media, for it hosted hundreds of international journalists reporting on a regular basis from the besieged city of Sarajevo. 

Despite the hotel’s importance, only isolated stories about it have made it into the public sphere, and a comprehensive history was lacking. This is precisely what Kenneth Morrison, professor in Modern South East European History at De Montfort University, provides in his new book Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn: On the Frontline of War and Politics. On 19th October, he presented it at a SEESOX seminar chaired by Elizabeth Roberts (Trinity College, Oxford).

Relying on many personal interviews with members of the hotel’s staff and some of its wartime guests, as well as extensive archival research, the book chronicles the history of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. But it also places it into a larger context addressing the different functions hotels perform in wartime. Often, they are understood as ‘political spaces’ or ‘geopolitical spaces’, for example when they provide neutral grounds for negotiations between warring factions. Sometimes, they are seen as strategic military assets and may become targets of terrorist or military attacks. During conflicts, they can provide temporary sanctuary or function as bases and meeting points for the media. Understanding these different functions helps understand why places such as the Hotel Europa in Belfast, the Holiday Inn and the Commodore in Beirut, the Ledra Palace in Nicosia or the Grand Hotel in Brighton been targeted or used as bases for the media. 

The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo is thus one example of a ‘war-hotel’, albeit a rather particular one. Unlike many of the hotels frequented by journalists in previous wars, it was located not only within siege lines, but directly on the frontline. After the fateful shots into the crowd, the SDS leadership vacated the hotel and moved its operations first to Ilidža and then eventually to its wartime headquarters in Pale. The hotel reopened soon after in order to accommodate the many journalists that started coming into the city. It offered little in the way of protection – the hotel was located directly on the infamous ‘Sniper Alley’, i.e. on the frontline of the war: According to the veteran BBC correspondent Martin Bell, staying at the Holiday Inn meant that ‘You did not have to go out to the war, the war came in to you’. 

As Morrison explained, while life in the hotel during that time was by no means luxurious, the journalists had access to water, some heating, fuel, alcohol, and food, which they knew was purchased on the black market. Conversely, for staff, having a job at the Holiday Inn was highly coveted; even if it was dangerous to get to the site itself, you were sure that you would be able to at least get some food and, on occasion, be able to take some of it home. In general, the staff made an enormous effort to project the image of ‘normalcy’ by, for example, insisting on wearing its regular uniform and serving the guests ‘silver service’, dressed in formal jackets bowties. This was not just professionalism, but an expression of resistance to those besieging the city and the preservation of personal dignity. 

One of the major questions in the entire Holiday Inn story is why the hotel, a building easily visible from all around the mountains, was not shelled more frequently. According to Morrison, there exist several possible explanations: the Serb forces may have reached an agreement with the Bosnian government not to target the building; or they might have feared the political consequences of attacking a hotel which housed the entire international press corps; or they might not have wanted to destroy too much of the prestigious Marijin Dvor area because they coveted the area as theirs in a post-war settlement or possible division of Sarajevo. 

After the war, the Holiday Inn was among the first buildings to be reconstructed and the international community with all the agencies involved in the post-war process moved in or used the hotel for a period of time. In 2003, the hotel was privatised and soon after its decline began. In 2015, the State Intelligence and Protection Agency ordered its closure, before the Hotel Europa Group bought the in early 2016. Since then, a revitalisation process has begun and this hugely important symbol of Sarajevo has been preserved. 

Kenneth Morrison: Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn: On the Frontline of War and Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016:

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