Bosnia and Herzegovina 20 Feb 2014 00:00
The Holiday Inn hotel in Sarajevo is recognized as one of the monuments in the city’s recent sad history – the Bosnian War in 1992. For many, it was a forgettable sight, “ugly” according to some journalists who used it as their main base while covering the war; “a joke facade” in the eyes of construction workers who helped built it.
Now called the Olympic Hotel Holiday Sarajevo – after losing its Holiday Inn chain license in 2013 – it closed its doors for the first time in its history in February 2014 after the staff went on strike. Despite a deal being reached, the hotel has officially closed its doors for good.
Since February 2014, the hotel faced protest by the employees who demanded payment and who occupied the lobby of the hotel, although employees signed each day for the start and end of their shifts.
They blamed “privatization and continuous failures to pay salaries” for a decrease in the number of employees, who once numbered 280 and are now only 140. Sajma Gugula, Mevlida Bekto, Sefka Topalov are waitresses working at the Holiday Inn for about thirty years. “We’ve been without pay for four months,” said one of the staff.
Of its 10 floors and 330 rooms, in its final days the hotel only occupied eight floors. The others were sold to third parties after the privatization, including the dining room - turned into a casino.
Designed by the celebrated Bosnian architect Ivan Straus, and built in 1982-83, Sarajevo's iconic Holiday Inn hotel was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics. It opened its doors officially in October 1983, presented by the then President of the International Olympic Committee Antonio Samaranch.
The Holiday Inn became one of the symbols of the Bosnian capital and it remains Sarajevo’s most interesting building, though it was a source of aesthetic controversy.
The bold yellow, ochre and brown exterior was of no much appeal to many, deviating from the boundary of gray buildings all around and making it different from all other hotels in the city.
"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 color. Construction workers thought it was a joke," Straus told many media outlets in the past years.
Before the war, the Bosnian-Serb Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), led by Radovan Karadzic, held numerous meetings in the hotel and by February 1992 even served as a temporary home for the Karadzic family.
However, in April 1992, demonstrators marched from outside the Bosnian parliament to the hotel. They were shot at, allegedly 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.
As the war went on, Bosnian Serb forces were surrounding Sarajevo and the siege tightened. The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting 1,425 days (from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996).
“The hotel has a real story and this is what sets us apart from our competitors,” says Mario Franjevic, 54, the hotel receptionist, showing a photograph made in wartime.
Franjevic was born in Sarajevo and started working at the Holiday Inn thirty years ago as a waiter. He has not received his monthly salary for four months.
Located on the famous "Sniper Alley," the hotel was in one of the most dangerous areas in the city, and very close to the front line. Speaking to the media, its manager at the time said the Holiday Inn was hit more than a 100 times during the early weeks of the siege, although it was far less a targeted than other neighboring buildings.
International media sent their crews to cover the increasingly violent war and established their bureaux in the Holiday Inn. The hotel quickly became famous as the headquarters of international war reporters covering the conflict in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
According to many journalists who spent weeks and months in Sarajevo under siege, stepping out of the hotel was an “everyday survival exercise to avoid getting shot.”
And every day, the hotel staff faced many dangers from snipers to go to work. Nonetheless, they maintained the hotel’s appearance and services (even if set-back by a lack of resources) during the war, purchasing diesel fuel on the black market that was used to heat the rooms during the winter.
After the war was over, the hotel has hosted many famous "international" personalities who descended to Sarajevo with the intention of rebuilding the country. After the international engagement in Bosnia ended, however, the fortunes of the hotel started to change, faced with many challenges because of the global economic crisis and political instability in Bosnia.
The hotel was initially privatized in 2000 and then sold for 22.8 million euros to a private Austrian group. Through privatization of the hotel, the Bosnian government has also sold the legal actions of employees (54%), who are awaiting trial at the Court of the Canton of Sarajevo for a compensation of over 12,000 euros.
Franjevic lost invested shares during the privatization process with the Austrian company and has been taking part in the protests inside the lobby of the hotel. “I don’t believe in a resolution to the problem anytime soon,” he said.
Today, despite its recent closure, the hotel is still seen by locals and visitors as an important symbol of Sarajevo, both architecturally and historically. And despite its name change, and going out of business, people still simply call the building “The Holiday Inn.”