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Bosnia: Sarajevo Residents Return To Adriatic Seaside

Sarajevo, 5 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- After four years of being trapped in what many called the world's largest concentration camp, residents of Sarajevo are now free to travel.

As life becomes more normal in the Bosnian capital, links are being established to the outside world. As of last week, there are regular flights between Sarajevo and Istanbul and Sarajevo and Zagreb -- even though the one-way fare to Zagreb, at $260 is far beyond the reach of most people.

Later this month there will be weekly flights to Berlin and Bonn as well. But for now, most Sarajevans' visions do not extend that far.

"This year we didn't have Sarajevans who were interested in traveling further than Croatia," said Zvonimir Nikolic, owner of Bosnia Tours travel agency.

It seems the first desire of Sarajevans with money to travel is to see the Adriatic seaside again -- once in their own country, Yugoslavia, but now in neighboring, independent Croatia. And the biggest draw of all is the spectacular medieval walled city of Dubrovnik, with its unique architecture, sparkling turquoise water and fresh seafood.

Nikolic's travel agency began business offering one of the most unusual trips in the world. For the equivalent in German marks of $68, then an exorbitant sum, he offered Sarajevans a way out of the besieged city through a secret tunnel under the airport, then a hike over Mount Igman and on to Split, Croatia, on a total of four buses.

In seven months during the war, 1,200 people left the city this way. By tbe beginning of this year, peace was reasonably secure and Nikolic was able to think of a more normal kind of tourism for this summer. So far he has sent 2,000 people to Dubrovnik at bargain prices of $20 a day, for a hotel room, breakfast and dinner. The majority of these 2,000 customers are leaving Sarajevo for the first time since war broke out in April, 1992.

Even at this price, a holiday out of the country is still unobtainable for most of the city's 368,000 residents.

"Unfortunately, there are not very many people who can afford it, but still the response of the people exceeded our expectations," Nikolic said. "After four years of the blockade of Sarajevo, for people to be able to go out is a psychological benefit that can barely be described."

Nikolic -- owner of one of five travel agencies now operating in Sarajevo -- says he is not making any money on the Croatian travel because prices have to be kept so low to attract customers. More profitable is his business of renting private rooms to the enormous number of journalists and foreign aid workers who come into Sarajevo, since only two of the city's 26 hotels survived the war.

But Nikolic is working on grander plans for Sarajevo's residents for next summer. If he has his way, people who only recently had to carry water home from standpipes in the streets will be dipping their toes in the crystal-blue waters of Turkey's Aegean seacoast.