It was built to withstand nuclear war, a secret bunker to shelter communist Yugoslavia’s strongman and his inside circle. Decades later, the massive underground complex is about to be reborn as one of the world’s quirkiest art galleries.
A Kalashnikov-toting soldier still guards the entrance of Josip Broz Tito’s subterranean fortress — a fitting if anachronistic symbol of the secrecy that once surrounded the structure.
Outside of Marshal Tito and his closest confidants, its existence was known only to four generals and the handful of soldiers guarding it on completion in 1979 until Bosnia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1992 and its new army took over.
Once the gallery opens a year from now, the soldier will be gone. The brainchild of a group of Sarajevo artists, it is to stage a Biennale of Contemporary Art starting next year — with the Council of Europe providing much of the funding.
Despite its more peaceful purpose, the bunker still won’t be easy to access. The entrance lies behind a nondescript garage door of a remote house at the end of a lonely road east of the town of Konjic, 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Sarajevo.
Once inside, a corridor takes the visitor to a 280 meter (920 foot) deep U-shaped complex dug into the mountain behind the house. Bigger doors to the left along the main corridor hide the utility rooms — a fresh water basin, a generator room with two 25-ton fuel tanks and the air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature at a comfortable 21 degrees Celsius at all times.
The smaller doors to the right lead to over 100 small bedrooms, offices and conference rooms, decorated with simple wooden furniture and the obligatory portrait of Tito in his uniform with numerous decorations and his usual “visionary” gaze.
Better quality wallpaper in the deepest part of the bunker adorns the late leader’s offices and his home quarters, including a small and simple bedroom with the building’s king-size bed and an en-suite bathroom.
The 6,500 sq. meter (70,000 sq. foot) bunker was built during the Cold War at a cost equivalent to $4.6 billion. If restocked with supplies it would still serve its purpose — allowing 350 people to live and work for six months without ever coming outside.
After completion — a 26-year project — its engineers built five more in Iraq for Saddam Hussein, a Tito friend. Saddam’s gone but his underground fortresses still exist in Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, Basra and Nasiriyah.
War did come to Yugoslavia just 12 years after Tito’s death, but not the kind the bunker was built to withstand. Yugoslavia disintegrated into its constituent republics in the bloodiest violence since World War II.
When it was over in 1995, the former republics were independent countries and Tito’s bunker was a huge white elephant owned by Bosnia’s armed forces, eager to hand it over to someone to get rid of the maintenance costs.
Enter Edo Hozic and other artists from Sarajevo, who in 2007 had the wild idea to transform the bunker into a gallery. They knew the Army found no use for it and authorities in Konjic had no idea what to do with it “except perhaps to grow mushroom in it,” he said.
Artists are to visit the bunker throughout the year, come up with concepts and costs and present them to the Council of Europe. The opening is scheduled for May 27 and if there is enough interest, it may become a permanent gallery.
“We figured that this place could become a new hotspot on a cultural map of this region,” said Hozic, a painter.