Documentary : No Windows, No Heat, No Hot Water--and No Vacancies at Sarajevo Hotel : Journalists flock to the city’s only operating inn, bartering liquor, eggs and batteries for the missing amenities.

Share via

About halfway up the 11 flights to my room in the ozone layer of the Holiday Inn, I ran into my friend Jamie Graff from Time magazine, bounding down the glass-strewn stairwell in the opposite direction.

“I’m getting an omelet in exchange for a bath,” he declared gleefully, brandishing the immersion water heater that would be his part of the deal.

The uninitiated might assume the coiled metal rods Graff was carrying had something to do with the omelet, as the device looks like an oversized egg beater.


But any journalist who has holed up at Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn to cover the war in Bosnia instantly recognizes it as a means for heating water and knows its incalculable value.

At the tail end of a brutal winter in a hotel that has no running water, heat or intact windows, anything that can help you get warm or clean is a desirable barter good in the media’s daily flea market of favors, talents and information.

The immersion water heaters, which take about two hours to warm a full tub, can be seen changing hands in the hallways at all hours of the day and night, in trade for everything from granola bars to cough medicine.

As the only working hotel in this battered Bosnian capital and the sole place where journalists can get access to a satellite telephone to file their stories, the Holiday Inn, despite its dearth of amenities, has been the refuge of the foreign press corps since the Serbian siege of Sarajevo began two years ago.

The hotel itself, which is no longer affiliated with the international chain, has been at the center of the conflict. It stands only a few hundred yards from the front line cutting through this ruined city. Dozens of rooms on the south side, facing the Serb-held neighborhood of Grbavica, have no windows, indeed no exterior walls.

While its charms are lost on all but those desperately seeking a “sat” phone and access to the outside world, the Holiday Inn has become a strangely comforting--almost familial--retreat for the journalists who are compelled to live and work there.


Confronted with physical hardships and the hazards of sniper fire and shelling, the press corps engages in a rare symbiosis, swapping creature comforts and generally ensuring that everyone gets by.

I earned the use of a coveted space heater from the Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent for bringing in a supply of contact lens solution. The Washington Post correspondent got Russian translation in exchange for driving me across the siege lines to Serb-held Lukavica in his armored car so that we could both talk to the Russian troops about their role here.

In return for use of his water heater, Graff exacted two eggs from the crate that a Time colleague had purchased in the rebel Serb stronghold of Pale and smuggled in his armored car into the hungry government-held part of the city.

Fresh food is almost nonexistent in Sarajevo, which has been cut off from trade and commerce by a Serbian blockade for two years. Some goods are swapped across the trenches by daring black-market dealers on both sides, making onions, potatoes and cabbages available at war-economy prices, but seldom is something so fragile as an egg to be bought for any amount of money.

When journalists with armored cars and the necessary sheaf of credentials from all warring factions brave a crossing of the dangerous no-man’s-land between the inner circle of Bosnian government defense troops and the outer ring of Serb nationalist rebels, they stow caches of oranges, cheese, eggs and other goodies out of sight in their trunks or truck beds to keep them from being pilfered by gunmen who paw through each vehicle crossing the gantlet of checkpoints.

Even in Pale, the Serb staging ground 10 miles east of here where residents are safe from the shelling and able to continue with farming and some industry, many items are unavailable, like imported cigarettes, chocolate, batteries and liquor.


After water boilers and space heaters, these luxury items are most in demand and have become the price of favors, like securing a room at the hotel when events overwhelm the staff’s ability to provide even the shell of a room.

When at least 400 foreign journalists thronged to Sarajevo ahead of the Feb. 21 threat of NATO air strikes, enterprising colleagues already ensconced at the hotel secured the last available rooms for their friends or held them in exchange for promises by latecomers that they would bring in some scarce item as a payoff.

Because each passenger allowed on relief flights operated by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is limited to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in luggage--including laptop computers, body armor and emergency rations--there is precious little allowance left for heavy breakables like bottles of booze.

Nonetheless, to pry my humble cubicle from a Newsweek stringer, it cost two bottles--one Scotch and one cognac--plus four packs of AA batteries, in addition to the normal $90 per night for the heatless and waterless room in which even the interior walls are nicked with bullet holes and shrapnel scars.

Most days, staying at the Holiday Inn differs little from camping.

Plastic sheeting has replaced the glass long ago blasted out of the windows by artillery shells, making it a challenge, even with a space heater, to keep the inside temperature much higher than that outdoors.

Electricity comes and goes, with an outage of several hours fairly common in early afternoon. But if the city supply is still pinched off by the surrounding rebels as European newspaper deadlines approach, the hotel turns on its gas-powered generator, fed with U.N.-supplied fuel, to provide power to most rooms--but just one outlet--allowing journalists to plug in their rechargeable laptops or portable satellite telex units.


Water is even scarcer than power, which has taught the hotel regulars to immediately plug and fill their bathtubs when it’s available so a sizable supply is on hand to replenish the toilet tank when outages stretch to several days.

The bathtub plug is missing from most rooms, however, so one has to be added to a journalist’s travel supplies. I forgot one on my last visit and had to pay for the oversight by hauling gallons of water up 11 flights of stairs each day until I bribed a hotel maid to bring one from home in exchange for two packs of cigarettes.

Running water has become such a rare service these days that the Holiday Inn management has arranged for a water tanker to be parked outside so guests can fill and ferry containers to their rooms to have a survival ration to boil for drinking and washing.

Those journalists who don’t know to bring collapsible water bags have to fill empty wine bottles from the restaurant to carry their supplies upstairs.

Restaurant workers sometimes fill a few dozen bottles after the communal dinner each night so those who didn’t have time to fetch water before the 10 p.m. curfew have something to use overnight.

It works this way: The waiters prune the tables of empty one-liter bottles that contained some of what seems an inexhaustible supply of cheap white wine and fill them with water they say has been filtered. I usually grab a couple of these bottles anytime I make the long trek upstairs. That way I can keep a supply of six or eight liters on hand for those times the power is on and I can boil up enough hot water for a sponge bath.


One morning, as I heated up successive cupfuls in my tiny electric kettle and dumped them into the bathroom sink, I detected a smell I couldn’t quite identify, but I was suddenly overcome with images of apres-ski revelry and cozy fires.

“Hot spiced wine!” I eventually realized. “Some people really know how to prepare. Here I can’t even bathe properly and someone on this floor is having a party.”

It was only after dumping the newly boiled contents of my electric kettle into the sink that I realized the aromatic brew was of my own making. Apparently, a full bottle of wine had been accidentally placed among the bottles of filtered water.

But having already soaped up and not wanting to bear the chill for as long as it would take to boil a new sinkful, I rinsed in my warm cocktail and thought, “Only in Sarajevo.”