Across the Balkans: Banja Luka

An account of a journey from Croatia to Kosovo, by way of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia, and with a detour into Montenegro. This is part II of a series.

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A Bosnian map of 1878 from the national museum in Banja Luka.

The bus to Banja Luka, presumably filled with Bosnian Serbs (perhaps the most unloved people in the Balkans), departed on-time around 3:00 p.m.

On the way to the bus station, I wandered through Zagreb’s imperial quarter (it could well be part of Vienna) and retrieved my backpack from the station locker. Then I had thoughts of visiting the local railway museum to find out when service might be restored on the line to Sarajevo. The museum was closed on a Monday and by then a misty rain was coating the formal gardens around the main station. In retreat, I took a tram to the bus terminal and huddled on a bench with my lunch, waiting for the driver to open the doors to Banja Luka.

Although the distance from Zagreb to Banja Luka is a little more than hundred miles and the bus rolled for the first hour along a modern interstate, the trip lasted some four hours, including a long pause at the Croatian-Bosnian border, which divides the European Union from the southern Balkans.

Along with everyone else on the bus, I lined up with my bag and passport, and waited for the immigration officer to scan my particulars. We had to wait in the rain (although we were under an awning) for the bus driver to smoke a cigarette and for another customs official to give the bus a cursory inspection. (He had the air of someone room looking around his living room for the remote control.) Then we re-boarded the bus for the drive into Banja Luka, although this time we were on crowded local roads, as the Republika Srpska has few interstates.

Idling in the misty rain, it occurred to me that I wasn’t far from the former death camp at Jasenovac, where during World War II local fascist elements and German overlords executed almost half a million Jews, Serbs, and gypsies—although the precise number killed is the subject of historical dispute and controversy.

After the war Jasenovac became a national Yugoslav memorial, where all members of the federation solemnly remembered the holocaust. Since the dissolution, Jasenovac is largely a Serbian and Jewish site located within Croatia (although not far from the Bosnian border), and, to many, borrowed land living on borrowed times.

As I wasn’t in a car, a stop at Jasenovac would have delayed me by a day or two, and to get from the camp to Banja Luka would have involved some hitchhiking (a habit from high school I am trying to break).

Instead I read through the file of book excerpts that I had compiled on the death tolls at Jasenovac, which quickly became an exercise in the futility of historiography.

Serb historians usually cite the figure of 500,000 victims in trying to add up how many Serbs, Jews, and gypsies were rounded up and killed during the 1941-45 German occupation. Many, but not all, would have died at Jasenovac, although the precise figures on the war dead, given the conditions, remains elusive.

In Fools’ Crusade, Johnstone writes about the Croatian wartime leadership of Ante Pavelić, who warmly embraced his overlords in Rome and Berlin:

Pavelić immediately set out to achieve the Ustashe goal of a pure Croatian state. At the time, Serbs made up over a quarter of the population. A new law restricted citizenship to “persons of Aryan race”. In Ustashe racist ideology, “Aryans” included both Germans and Croats, but also Bosnian Muslims, considered to be an aristocracy of the purest Croatian race.

Among those who disagreed with the estimates of the number of dead was the first president of independent Croatia (1992), Franjo Tudjman, who during World War II fought with Tito’s Partisans and who later rose to become a Yugoslav general.

He was also a noted Holocaust denier and disputed not just the death totals of Serbs at Jasenovac during World War II but also those of European Jewry (citing the figure of 4 million, as opposed to 6 million dead in the gas chambers).

According to Johnstone, there were times when he would say “that only 2,000−3,000 prisoners, mostly Gypsies, had perished at Jasenovac, described as a work camp administered by ‘free prisoners’ who were Jews.”

In Impossible Country, Hall interviews Tudjman and quotes from his books, which include The National Question in Contemporary Europe, The Nation-State: Key to the Peace of Europe, and Wasteland: The Historical Realities, both of which claim that Serb deaths at Jasenovac were about 35,000.

A more recent book, Christopher Bennett’s Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace (2016), puts the figure of Jasenovac victims at 85,000. He also makes the point that some 97 percent of Yugoslavia’s Jewish population perished during the war.

The disputed figures might not matter, except that they became important again in 1992, as Yugoslavia was breaking apart and more than a million Serbs found themselves living under a Croatian flag that had been flying when their countrymen (in whatever numbers) were being rounded up and trucked to Jasenovac. Johnstone writes:

The total number of victims of these savage massacres was never determined and thus remains open to controversy. The “official” figure of 700,000 Serbs murdered is an estimate, as are other figures, some higher, some lower. What is undisputed is the extraordinary ferocity of these killings, as confirmed by numerous witnesses, in particular Italian and German observers who were ostensibly the allies and protectors of the Ustashe killers.

Whatever the numbers, the shadow of Jasenovac—rarely written about in the press in 1992—was one of the reasons that gerrymandered Serbs (who Tito had allocated to Yugoslavia’s Croatian and Bosnian republics) refused to live as minorities in newly independent foreign lands.

* * *

The bus driver dropped me on the curb of a busy boulevard in Banja Luka and continued driving out of town. By then it was dark and raining, and it was too far for me to walk to my hotel, the Palas, located in the city center. Nor was it possible to hail a taxi, as all that passed had fares heading somewhere.

A forlorn figure in the February gloom, I started asking some pedestrians for directions to the Palas until one of them shook his head and said it was best if he called me a taxi, which he did on his cell phone. A few minutes later, a cab pulled briskly to the sidewalk and I jumped in for the five minute ride into the center of Banja Luka.

I liked the Palas Hotel, which appeared stuck in a time warp from the Yugoslav era. The room (filled with furniture from the 1970s) cost about $35 a night and had a large desk, in case, perhaps, I wanted to add some amendments to the 1917 Corfu Declaration (from which was established the independence of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes). Dinner was graciously served in the dining room, and I warmed myself with local beer and barley soup.

After dinner (I didn’t linger over slivovitz, as the cigarette smoke was thick in the air), I went for a walk around Banja Luka and discovered a city of some charms, even if it’s the capital of what many believe is a rogue state.

In the February cold, I walked by a Titoist park (with a soaring war memorial to the Partisans), an old Turkish fortress, a beautiful mosque, some modern hotels, an Orthodox cathedral, and city hall—an oval building elegantly lined with columns and its facade illuminated at night.

Other than a few night clubs with pulsing lights, the only thing open was an art gallery, located in what felt like a former Austrian railway station.

A sign said the museum would be open until 10 p.m. (an ideal time for museums to close), and as I entered, a guard by the front door gestured to the exhibits, which were rows of painted portraits of Partisans killed in Bosnia during World War II. Each was encased in a thick wooden frame, and there were notes in English explaining how and where each fighter was killed.

The long rows of partisan portraits, which included many women killed in the fighting, matched well with a passage in Johnstone’s history, in which she writes:

Bosnia-Herzegovina was the scene of a merciless civil war between not two but several parties: Ustashe, partisans, Chetniks, the Wehrmacht, Italian occupation forces, and even militia such as the Muslim units from the Serbian region of Sandžak who attacked Serb villages in eastern Bosnia, setting off a terrible cycle of reprisals and revenge. Precisely because Bosnia-Herzegovina had experienced the most massive killing and worst atrocities during the war, the official version, glorifying mass support for the partisans, brotherhood and unity, was imposed with special rigor.

It was in Pavlowitch’s history that I came across other passages about the extent to which World War II in Yugoslavia was actually a civil war. He writes: “Even for the guerrillas, to survive and then to eliminate domestic opponents was more important than to fight foreign occupation troops…. Yugoslavs were slaughtered by other Yugoslavs more than by foreign soldiers…. Communist Yugoslavia perpetuates the cult of the partisan war of 1941-5, whereas this was first and foremost a fratricidal war between Yugoslavs.”

The Yugoslavia that emerged from the wreckage of the Second World War papered over the disagreements not just of 1914-18 (Tito, born in Croatia, fought on the side of the Austrians against the Serbs), but those that divided the country between 1941-45.

Pavlowitch writes:

As for the Communist regime, it adopted the principle of ethnic multiplicity on the Soviet model. Yet it prevented any expression of nationalism that strayed beyond the specific limits assigned to it, and it fostered a feeling of Yugoslav socialist patriotism. Open dialogue and political debate were still not on the agenda…. Tito’s Yugoslavia also recalled certain aspects of the Austro-Hungarian tradition. Catholic inspired, the old monarchy was, in theory and origin, a personal union of different historic lands.

One of the failings of Tito’s Yugoslavia was that its internal borders corresponded more to the ruling dynamics of the Communist elite than they did to the nationalities in the underlying republics.

Only in Slovenia was the population more or less homogenous. Otherwise, as the largest ethnic group inside Yugoslavia, Serbs were gerrymandered into Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia, much the way Mayor Richard Daley used to apportion voters in various congressional districts around Chicago.

By 1981, according to Pavlowitch, “there were a little under 2 million Serbs in the other republics, and some 1.3 million in Serbia’s autonomous provinces, against 4.9 million in what is now called ‘inner Serbia’.”

The country also had more than a million Muslims, mostly in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo (not a republic, but, in Tito-speak, a Socialist Autonomous Province).

The end came to Yugoslavia in 1992 when Tito’s internal borders became the basis of international frontiers. Writing presciently (in 1988) before the war broke out, Pavlowitch concluded: “The partition of Yugoslavia, if it could be carried out, would place her successors in a situation of mutual enmity with one another, as well as at the mercy of their more powerful neighbors.”

That’s exactly what happened.

* * *

I slept well that night in my commissar’s bedroom and awoke to see bright winter sun shining into my hotel window and, after inhaling cigarette smoke in the breakfast room, retraced my steps around Banja Luka to see the most reviled capital in Europe.

The problem with Republika Srpska (which has its capital in Banja Luka) is that it is a state within a state, and in many respects Bosnia-Hercegovina has duplicated the contradictions that helped, over time, to bring down Yugoslavia.

Part of what doomed Yugoslavia was that it recognized the powers of constituent republics over the rights of its citizens, and when the two interests collided it was the states’ rights that prevailed. The secessions of Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina took place without any votes at the federal level.

The same is true in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which is divided in half between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. It is the latter that, within the country of Bosnia-Hercegovina, represents the interests of Croats and Muslims (sometimes called Bosniaks).

Minorities on either side of the divide are largely disenfranchised and live in dread that Bosnia-Hercegovina will dissolve as did Yugoslavia.

Bennett writes:

Republika Srpska may be recognized as an integral part of Bosnia in the Dayton settlement, but its continued existence in the absence of the wholesale refugee returns also anticipated in the peace accord leaves a sour taste in the mouths of non-Serbs.

* * *

The Museum of the Republika Srpska—with display cabinets, exhibits and maps—makes the historical case for Bosnian Serbs, not one of the more popular causes in Europe, as it is the Serbs who are often blamed for Bosnia’s descent into civil war.

It is the Bosnian Serbs who are held responsible for the ethnic cleansing around Bosnia from 1992-95, and, in particular, two Serb leaders—Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, one the local president and the other its military commander—personify many of the evils associated with Serb aggression during the fighting.

Both were convicted of war crimes at the Hague Tribunal and are serving life sentences. While on the run from tribunal agents, they would have passed through Banja Luka.

Needless to say, the museum does not dwell on notorious Bosnian Serb war criminals but tries to place Bosnia-Hercegovina in the context of broader European history, in which Bosnia (a bit like Alsace and Lorraine for France and Germany) has often been on the crossroads between war and peace, especially among rival empires.

Most fatefully, the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, ending a Balkan war between Russia and Turkey, awarded the jurisdiction of Bosnia to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Austria saw control over Bosnia as a way to thwart the expansionist dreams of Serbia, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, by placing a Germanic wedge in between those countries and the Adriatic Sea.

The same circumstances might have motivated NATO, Germany, and the United States (although perhaps for different reasons) when in 1992 they chose to support independence for Bosnia-Hercegovina.

I was most drawn to the map collections that showed Bosnia’s progression from an Ottoman principality (from the middle ages to 1878) to what it is today—a ward of the international community.

In the intervening centuries Bosnia’s frontiers have floated about depending on whether its occupation forces were Turkish, Austrian, German, Yugoslav, Croatian, or those of NATO and the United Nations.

Some of the museum maps, like those in the books I was reading, showed the ethnic composition of Bosnia-Hercegovina before, during, and after the 1992-95 fighting, and they showed Republika Srpska’s evolution into the present—a horseshoe-shaped province surrounding the Federation from the west, north, and east. Only through a narrow corridor does Bosnia have access to the sea.

In Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II, Newsday reporter David Rohde writes about Bosnia’s ethnic disposition:

The Serbs, who made up only 31 percent of the country’s population, would get 49 percent of Bosnia’s land and the de facto “ethnically pure” state they had brutally created. Croats, who comprised only 17 percent of the population, received nearly 25 percent of the land. Bosnia’s Muslims, who constituted 44 percent of the population, were allotted only 25 percent of the land, and were the war’s clear losers.

What he does not add, although the point is made in the museum, is that some of the Serbs who ended up in western Bosnia came there in 1995 when Croatia (with United States military planning and assistance) cleansed several hundred thousands Serbs from what was called the Krajina and forced their retreat into Bosnia.

The other point made in the museum displays is the extent to which the international community—to suit its geo-strategic designs?—reconfigured the way national and ethnic groupings in Bosnia were defined.

When it was part of Yugoslavia, Bosnians were defined either as Serbs or Croats (the majority were Serbs), and at a further level as Orthodox, Catholics, Muslim, or agnostic.

Only as Yugoslavia was dissolving did Bosnian Muslims (now called Bosniaks, although originally that word defined Serbs) become a national grouping, on a par with Croats and Serbs. Johnstone writes:

There had never in history been an independent Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina. The designation of “Muslims” as an official “nationality” was a recent innovation. The Muslims were Serbs or Croats who had converted to another religion. Until the 1971 census, Orthodox Serbs made up the relative majority in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serb peasants still owned most of the land.

The problem now with Bosnia-Hercegovina—and a possible threat for European peace—is that if the Republika Srpska were to declare its independence (just as Slovenia and Croatia did from Yugoslavia), it would likely start another Balkan War, as Croats and Muslims in the surrounded Federation would fear annihilation coming in many directions.

* * *

From the museum I walked to the city’s principal mosque, which dates to Turkish times (the interior looked freshly painted, implying it might have burned during the war), and to the remains of the Kastel Fortress, on the banks the Vrbas river.

On the grounds of the fortress I wandered pleasantly along the ramparts (first built by the Romans) and drank coffee in a terrace restaurant overlooking the river. Then I went in search of a bookstore and copies of the novels of Ivo Andrić, a Bosnian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, largely because of his novels, The Bridge on the Drina and The Days of the Consuls.

In the divided world of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Andrić is a man for all seasons, as he was born in Travnik (not far from Sarajevo) and grew up in Visegrád (on the banks of the Drina river, which divides Bosnia from Serbia).

As a young man he studied in Croatia and Austria, and in his career, while also writing, he served as a Yugoslav diplomat (much the way writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Dean Howells had stints in American consulates).

About the only thing that Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs, and Austrians can agree upon is that Andrić was a great writer, who in Drina wrote: “Nothing brings men closer than a common misfortune happily overcome.”

Growing up, I first heard about Andrić’s novels from my parents, who read him with devotion and cited his novels whenever a dinner-table conversation turned toward Bosnia, which it did often after our night train ride to Belgrade.

I only read Drina when I was a senior in college and studying independently under the direction of Professor Robert Beard, who had taught and lived in Yugoslavia and pushed me deeper into its literature.

The summer after my graduation, I traveled widely in Yugoslavia, from Nish (in Serbia) to Rijeka (now part of Croatia), and at one point I rode a narrow gauge railway across Bosnia to Sarajevo.

As I now recall, I boarded the small wooden carriage in Vardište, on the Bosnian-Serbian border, although in those Yugoslav days no one paid any attention to the border between the two republics. It was merely a Titoist, administrative line and of no consequence.

For most of the day, the train wound its way though mountainous gorges in eastern Bosnia, and to my delight it crossed the Drina at Visegrád, although I confess now not to remember actually seeing the famous bridge, and its series of Romanesque arches. Of it Andrić wrote:

But misfortunes do not last forever (this they have in common with joys) but pass away or are at least diminished and become lost in oblivion. Life on the kapia [at the center of the bridge] always renews itself despite everything and the bridge does not change with the years or with the centuries or with the most painful turns in human affairs. All these pass over it, even as the unquiet waters pass beneath its smooth and perfect arches.

The train arrived in Sarajevo toward dusk, and what I do remember is being stunned to see so many minarets on the city skyline. This was Europe in the 1970s, and secular Yugoslavia to boot, and I had not expected to come across what looked like Istanbul or Cairo on the horizon.

Andrić died in 1975, seventeen years before the Bosnian wars, but I doubt that much about its violence, or Sarajevo’s more recent rebirth, would have surprised him.

Andrić said of the city: “If you take a look at Sarajevo at any time of day, from any surrounding hill, you will always inadvertently come to the same conclusion. It is a city that is wearing out and dying, while at the same time being reborn and transformed.”

Next up: the train to Sarajevo. Read Part I here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.