You’ll often hear Belfast’s Europa Hotel described as “Europe’s most bombed hotel”, and it’s true that it once was. During the Troubles it was frequently damaged by bomb attacks. But it lost this dubious honour to the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, which was hit hundreds of times during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995.
The Sarajevo Holiday Inn, located in the heart of Bosnia’s capital, was designed by the celebrated Bosnian architect Ivan Straus, and built in 1982-83. It remains one of Sarajevo’s most interesting buildings, though perhaps not its most beautiful. It opened its doors in 1984 to accommodate guests for the Winter Olympics, and its unique design was intended to reflect Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan spirit. Little did anyone anticipate the hotel’s fate just eight years later when war broke out in the region.
From 1992 to 1995, Sarajevo endured the longest siege in modern history. Bosnian Serb forces subjected it to relentless shelling and sniper fire. At the start of the conflict, the hotel was home to the founder of the Serb Democratic Party, Radovan Karadzic. 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 Karadzic. The hotel was then stormed by Bosnian government forces and the snipers were arrested – but by then Karadzic and his entourage had fled.
Bosnian Serb forces surrounded the city, and in the following days and weeks, the siege of Sarajevo tightened. International news agencies sent their journalists to stay in the hotel, and for the next three years they were the hotel’s most regular paying guests.
The hotel was subjected to countless bombings throughout this period. 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. (Coincidentally, there’s a famous story of the Europa’s water supply being cut off by a bomb in the seventies. The hotel’s manager, the super suave Harper Brown, is said to have responded by giving all the guests half bottles of champagne to brush their teeth with instead, which went down very well with the journalists in particular.)
But although the bombings damaged the physical structure of the hotel, it became a symbol of resilience and defiance. Bed linen was changed regularly and waiting staff served drinks dressed in jackets and bow ties.
Despite the constant threat of danger, it continued to function as a makeshift refuge for the journalists, foreign diplomats, and aid workers who risked their lives. BBC correspondent, Martin Bell, described the Holiday Inn during this time as “ground zero”, adding, “From there, you didn’t go out to the war. The war came in to you.”
The hotel was completely renovated after the war and you can still stay in it. According to its rather spiffy website, it “will delight guests with its traditional elegance, high quality service and special features.”
So while the Europa Hotel was certainly bombed a lot during the Troubles (it was damaged by explosions 33 times between 1970 and 1994), we think the Sarajevo Holiday Inn deserves the title of Europe’s Most Bombed Hotel.