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War tourists fight to see Bosnia's past

Officials, worried that the wounds of the 1992-95 war are too fresh, dissuade those eager to learn about it.

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Here in Bosnia, where the 1992-95 war can be the prickliest of subjects, some friends and I recently discovered that there are easier endeavors in life than trying to be "war tourists."

Interested in seeing the half-mile tunnel hand-dug by Bosnian government forces and volunteers in 1993 to connect the besieged city with government-held territory, we visit Sarajevo's tourist office to ask for directions.

A 20-something youth gives us a brochure - with a bungled map and no contact telephone number - and then skillfully steers us toward attractions downtown. "May I suggest you see these churches?" he says, circling a few landmarks on the city map.

Such attempts to redirect tourists leaves those interested in learning more about the war largely to their own devices. It also makes it difficult for war tour operators to conduct business. But tourism officials explain that with the wounds of the war still fresh, giving explanations of what happened, and why, can be quite a dicey proposition.

"We have to talk about nice things," says the head of Bosnia's tourism authority, Semsudin Dzeko. "And the ugly things - if someone is interested in history, it's easier for us to talk about the first or second world war - wars that happened 50 or 60 years ago - than the war that happened 10 years ago."

War tourism, he says, involves explanations that can rile some Bosnians in a country still divided into mostly ethnic halves. And those explanations - and the politics involved - could endanger the new national tourism association Mr. Dzeko is trying to run.

"I don't have anything against people talking about what happened, but it doesn't have to be morbid," he explains. "We're selling a product - tours of Sarajevo - and you don't want an arrangement that's going to scare people away the first day."

But guide Zijo Jusufovic - whose offerings include a popular Sarajevo war tour and a trip to Srebenica, site of the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims - has a different perspective. Avoiding talk of the war, he says, is rubbish, and besides, people are curious.

"Don't think they're crazy or like blood," he says of war tourists, over coffee at Sarajevo's bright yellow Holiday Inn - itself a landmark as the wartime home of the international press. "They want to understand what happened here, and they just want to compare their lives with people's lives here."

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