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At Sarajevo hostel, live like you’re in a war zone (though you can leave any time)

A hostel in Bosnia is offering visitors a unique experience: the opportunity to live like civilians in a war zone.

But at the Sarajevo War Hostel, guests have the luxury of knowing they won’t be killed, starved or lose family or friends. And unlike the Sarajevans who actually endured the 1992-95 war, the visitors can leave any time.

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Those who check in to the War Hostel are greeted by the owner wearing a helmet and a flak jacket. They get to sleep in rooms with just one bulb on the ceiling, running on a car battery. The plastic sheets on the windows are just like the ones the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees handed out to Sarajevans so they could replace window glass shattered by bombs.

At night, they use candles to move around the hostel and to read by. The walls are plastered with wartime newspaper articles depicting the daily struggle in besieged Sarajevo.

At the War Hostel, visitors quickly discover it is one thing to watch people surviving wars on TV, but it is really something else to spend the night on a sponge mattress on the floor, covered with military blankets, and in the darkness listen to the sound of exploding bombs outside. A tape of the bombs plays all night long.

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In a makeshift bunker and by candlelight, the hostel owner, Zero One, 25, shares with guests his childhood memories of wartime and the post-war era, and tells them how wars can influence people’s lives forever. His birth name is Arijan Kurbasic, but he calls himself Zero One, the wartime code name used by his father, who was a soldier in the Bosnian Army. The code name conceals his ethnic background.

“I just want to be identified as a human being as this was the most important thing to be during the war. Either you are one or you are not,” he explains. “Zero One I chose to honour my father.”

The war unfolded after Yugoslavia fell apart and its republics declared independence one after the other. Nationalist politicians were determined to divide the new country of Bosnia and Herzegovina along ethnic lines and pitted the country’s Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Christian Orthodox Serbs against each other.

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However, Sarajevo, as well as other parts of Bosnia, were ethnically diverse and many locals rejected the nationalist plans – something for which they paid a high price.

The Serb siege of Sarajevo went on for 46 months – precisely 1,425 days – longer than the siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, during the second world war. Sarajevo’s 380,000 people were left without food, electricity, water or heating as they hid from snipers and the average 330 shells a day that smashed into the city.

Over 100,000 people were killed during the Bosnian war, 11,541 of them in Sarajevo.

Guests appreciate the intensity of the hostel simulation. “The best way to learn about something is usually experience,” says Andrew Burns, 21, a hostel guest from the U.S. “It provides emotions behind events. I can read a textbook all I want, but most of that information escapes from the mind immediately. But when I come here and I see people who talk about their experiences, that makes it real, that makes me want to learn about it, to try to help, try to love.”

Zero One also offers guests a chance to watch documentaries about the siege, and can organize tours of the city’s war sites, like the front lines and a tunnel Sarajevans dug under the airport runway to connect the city with the outside world.

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“They come here, they experience this and it changes their perspectives,” Zero One says of his guests. “For one or two nights, to live like this, it changes their views and then they appreciate their own life, they appreciate water, they appreciate comfort, they appreciate a bed, they appreciate everything else. It really gives them a different perspective and that is the whole point of this.”

Guests agree that the War Hostel is unique, as Eren Bastaymaz, 30, from Turkey, puts it. “You can find better hostels anywhere in the world, but this atmosphere, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Sarajevo War Hostel: Private room, 20 for two; mixed dorms, 10 per person. https://warhostel.com/