Across the Balkans: From Banja Luka to Sarajevo

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 III of a series.

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Serb war memorial outside the Banja Luka train station.

To catch the train from Banja Luka to Sarajevo, I had to ride a bus to the edge of the city where the rail station is located. On the way, just beyond the new government building, I found the Mala Stanica, an old station, which in recent years has been turned into an elegant restaurant, one normally filled with Republika Srpska parliamentarians.

The old station was about the size of a small house, and I am sure that it dates to the late nineteenth century when Austrian colonial administrators laid out a series of narrow-gauge rail lines around the country—to consolidate control, help with troop deployments, and drag mineral wealth to Vienna.

My Visegrád rail line was built for the service of the Eastern Bosnia Railway while this station, as best as I could work out from some maps on the internet, had been part of the connections between the Adriatic coast and Sarajevo.

The more modern railroad station in Banja Luka is a page out of the Socialist Realism Book of Design. I found it by walking in from the main road—where the bus dropped me—and cutting through a thicket of kiosks, many of which had a dilapidated air.

Only a few trains come and go each day in Banja Luka, although the station at one time had larger ambitions. I can imagine that Tito had it in mind to use Banja Luka as a junction between Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, and as such the waiting room was built to accommodate hundreds of travelers, few of whom were evidence when I poked around the cubist halls, trying to find the ticket window.

The ticket on the afternoon train cost about $12, and after securing my passage, I went in search of bottled water and afternoon tea, as I knew the train would not arrive in Sarajevo until 8:00 p.m.

On the way to a nearby food stall, I had to walk amongst a group of men, all of whom were wearing leather jackets, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer from cans, and warming themselves around what looked like a dumpster fire.

To them I am sure I looked liked a Hague investigator, and to me they looked liked suspects who needed to be brought in from the cold.

* * *

Since 2016, modern Talgo trains have connected Banja Luka and Sarajevo. No doubt Spain or the European Union made the train sets a gift to Bosnia. Normally, such service would run at high speeds, but in this case the tracks across central Bosnia feel more suited to hauling coal than tilting high-speed trains.

In all only about a half dozen travelers were on the train this particular winter afternoon. I had nearly an entire car to myself, and the conductor didn’t even bother to check my ticket. Instead he prowled up and down the aisles, as if a security guard in an empty mall, and between stops he spoke on his cell phone.

I felt lucky to have brought along tea and biscuits, and for most of the journey I read Christopher Bennett’s Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace, a recent book, published by Oxford, about the country’s political failures.

It had taken me a while to find a copy of Bennett’s book, which was not available for my Kindle but only in hardback and paperback. Finally I had ordered a copy on Amazon, and it arrived in time for me to carry it on my travels.

For a number of years, Bennett has lived and worked in Bosnia with several international organizations, including the office of the high representative (NATO’s proconsul), and now is the director of the Foundation for the Preservation of Historical Heritage in Sarajevo.

For me Bennett’s book got off to a wonderful start, explaining Bosnia’s political failures. Later I bogged down in the minutiae of his analysis of Bosnian political parties.

He writes: “Bosnia is not a self-sustaining democracy, and the political system remains as insidious and virulent as it was before the outbreak of hostilities…. The fundamental flaw in Bosnia’s electoral system is that the candidates need only seek votes from one ethno-national group to win office.”

Bosnia is not a large country, and the importance of the Talgo train from Banja Luka to Sarajevo is that it connects the Republika Srpska to the Federation, although perhaps that route also helps to explain why no one was on the train. The two sides do not mix comfortably.

Early on after Bosnia’s independence, Serbs, Croats or Muslims could be identified from the patterns on their car license plates, although that practice was discontinued, leading to freer passage between the two Bosnian parts. That said, this Talgo had the feeling of a ghost train.

What little daylight there was on the train came before we reached Doboj, where in better days connections could have been made for trains to Belgrade. Now, as during the Austrian occupation from 1878 to 1914, Bosnian railways are entirely self-contained and cross no international frontiers.

In the February gloom, the landscape of northern Bosnia had forlorn qualities, and along the tracks were the hulking ruins of earlier five-year plans, now fallen into disrepair.

During the Yugoslav era, Bosnia bore some resemblance to West Virginia, and much of its economy was based on the extraction of natural minerals and small-scale agricultural in the mountainous valleys.

More recently the service sector, with investment from abroad, has pushed the gross domestic product from about $3 billion in 1997 to more than $20 billion today.

Land values have appreciated, restaurants are opening around the country, people buy and repair cars, trucks deliver goods, and remittances from abroad help residents to buy and fix up apartments and houses.

Tourists come to Sarajevo (which has trendy corners) and Mostar (the Ottoman bridge has been rebuilt), but nowhere else. And the road network keeps expanding, with a few autoroutes sprinkled around the county.

One of the major problems is that the two parts of the country can rarely agree on the distribution of assets between the two constituent parts, a disaster in a country starved of investment capital.

The Bosnian economy has relied heavily on aid from the international community for its capital-intensive projects (some $10 billion in recent years), but not long ago the national airline (an important link for a landlocked country) went into liquidation.

A new carrier, FlyBosnia is trying to fill its place, but when I asked someone where it would fly, the answer came back with a shrug: “Saudia Arabia, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Kuwait…” Later, when I looked up the airline, I discovered that it was targeting what it calls “Halal tourism.”

Bosnia remains outside both NATO and the European Union. Bennett concludes, with some sadness:

The ‘pull of Brussels’ has not proved a sufficiently strong incentive to set in train self-sustaining reform processes to overcome zero-sum, ethno-national politics and to help turn Bosnia into a functional state.

* * *

A little after 8:00 p.m. the Talgo rolled into the Sarajevo central station, yet another skeleton of Tito’s worker self-management councils. In summer 1976, when I took the narrow-gauge train from Visegrád, I had gotten off at the Bistrik railway station in a Sarajevo neighborhood, at an old wooden-frame station, and walked into the old city.

The more modern—if that’s the word for it?—Yugoslav railway station is on the other side of the Miljacka river and speaks to the era when central planners could imagine dozens of daily trains connecting Sarajevo to Zagreb, Belgrade, and the Dalmatian coast.

Now only a handful of local trains (besides the Talgo) use the station, and in the early evening the vast concourse might well have been a waiting room in Purgatory.

I had booked an Airbnb room based on the description of the interior, which said the apartment was a holdover from Austro-Hungarian times and that I would be sleeping in the front parlor, which had books, a fireplace, and a balcony—most of the things I want in a hotel room (and rarely find).

It was a fifteen minute walk from the station, and on the way I passed near the American embassy (rebuilt since the war to resemble a minimum-security prison) and the former Holiday Inn, which during the fighting was a journalistic encampment and often in the news (it has also been rebuilt and is called the Hotel Holiday).

The streets of Sarajevo were covered with slush and ice, and here and there were pockets of cobblestones, all of which would have done in my bicycle.

I cut behind a large office complex and mall and little by little found my way to the Airbnb, where the kindly owner gave me a cup of tea and the password for the wifi. The rooms indeed had Austro-Hungarian qualities, and on a large table I spread out my books and maps as if I were one of Franz Ferdinand’s subalterns.

* * *

Some of the snow melted overnight, and in the morning the streets of the Sarajevo old town were more wet than icy, although I still walked gingerly over any slick cobblestones.

The tourist footprint of Sarajevo (made of up Austrian and Turkish quarters) is small, while the rest of the city (think of endless apartment blocks) spreads along the valley of the Miljacka, which often looks more like a drainage ditch than a river.

That first day, I had engaged a guide to walk me around the old town in the morning, and in the afternoon another guide would take over and drive me along the contours of what are called “the siege lines”—the barricades that separated Serbs, Croats, and Muslims during the three years of the 1992-95 civil war.

My walking guide was a graduate student in history at the local university, and he spoke eloquently about Sarajevo’s evolution from a Turkish provincial town to ground zero of the Bosnian wars.

He was about four when the war ended, and remembered huddling in corners during artillery attacks and later, over coffee, spoke about how his father was killed fighting near Goražde, in eastern Bosnia. He had spent his life in Sarajevo, but when I asked him he had any Serb friends, he thought for a minute and said “no.”

We spent much of our time together than morning at the former city hall, which in 1992 houses the National Library. Shortly after the fighting began in Sarajevo, it burned to the ground, reducing to ashes some 2 million books and periodicals.

Serb artillery in the hills surrounding Sarajevo had targeted the landmark building, which is where, after the first assassination attempt on June 28, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie had repaired for tea and a small ceremony. The archduke said indignantly: “I come here as your guest and you people greet me with bombs!”

Only after leaving the city hall and driving back along the river did the Ferdinand’s driver get confused and, randomly, stop the car near the Latinski Bridge where Gavrilo Princip was drinking coffee. (He had never fired a shot or thrown a bomb when the entourage went past the first time.)

With the archduke and his wife stopped a few feet away from him, Princip pulled out his revolver and shot both husband and wife, setting in motion the events that would lead to World War I. (Ferdinand’s last words, spoken to his wife, were: “Don’t die darling, live for our children.”)

In the twenty-four years since the more recent war ended in Sarajevo, some $20 million in international aid allowed the city to rebuild the burned-out city hall. Now, however elegantly restored, it’s a building in search of a purpose.

The national library itself was moved to the campus of the university, which is on the other side of the American embassy and the Holiday Hotel. Without books inside, the old city hall feels like an empty model showroom, awaiting tenants and furniture.

In the renovated basement there is a picture gallery about the history of Sarajevo, and in the rooms upstairs there are various exhibits, including a salon with large posters showing Franz Ferdinand and his wife taking tea—just before their assassination.

In a corner of the city hall there is a replica of a Hague Tribunal courtroom, complete with a witness box and judges robes hanging in the corners, and in another room there are banks of computers where researchers are welcome to search out testimony from the trials.

No one was researching when I was there, although the attendant staff was eager for someone to ask probing questions about the likes of General Ratko Mladić.

On the walls were mug shots of convicted war criminals, with the words “Kriv/Guilty” stamped in red over their faces. Apportioning war guilt remains a popular local pastime.

* * *

From the city hall to the central market (where numerous Bosnians were killed during several mortar attacks in the fighting), we took a little detour so that I could see the Sarajevo high school where both Ivo Andrić and Gavrilo Princip had studied. It’s still used as a school building, and there wasn’t much to see except the front door and, inside, long corridors of classrooms.

Andrić was slightly older than Princip and a more serious student—Princip left school to become a revolutionary—but both in the early twentieth century came to their own conclusions about independence for Bosnia and the south slavs.

In the covered market, where the mortars fell, the city has kept the painful memories alive by painting red into the grooves left by the explosives, a form of remembrance now called a “Sarajevo rose.”

A nearby tablet recorded:

Thousands of shells rained on Sarajevo during the aggression against Bosnia and Hercegovina and UN forces registered an average of 330 impacts a day. In just one of such days, on 22 July 1993, Sarajevo received 3,777 shells fired from the surrounding hills. In the siege that lasted for 1,425 days, every single shell left scars on the asphalt roads, pavement or town buildings. Many of them wounded or killed one or more citizens in the besieged town while explosions were leaving marks in concrete, similar to flowers. On some locations in town those scars were painted with red resin, and hence they were named Sarajevo roses.

The 1995 market shelling persuaded the United States, NATO, and other countries to launch air attacks against Serb positions around Sarajevo and Bosnia.

The campaign lasted several months and it hit a number of Bosnian Serb targets in eastern Bosnia as well some around Banja Luka.

After the air attacks, the NATO allies forced the Serbs to lift the siege on Sarajevo, and the parties in the civil war agreed to talks, which led to the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995) that ended the armed conflict in Bosnia.

That’s the official line of the great powers, and it could well be true that there was cause-and-effect between the market attacks, NATO’s intervention against the Serbs, and the peace in Dayton. David Rohde writes in Endgame:

But on August 28 a shell landed near a Sarajevo open-air market, killing thirty-seven and wounding eighty-eight. The Serbs—as was their custom—accused the Muslims of firing the shell on their own people to create a pretext for NATO bombing. But a UN crater analysis ruled that the deadly shell and four others fired in the same volley all came from Serb positions…. The UN commander in Sarajevo, British general Rupert Smith, now had the pretext he needed to launch air strikes.

Not everyone, however, agrees that the narrative around the attacks is so linear. For example, Diana Johnstone writes in Fool’s Crusade:

On 28 August 1995, another ghastly market massacre ripped people to bits in a busy shopping area of Sarajevo. The Bosnian Serb government in Pale had just accepted Washington’s terms for peace talks. British and French ballistics experts found no evidence that Bosnian Serbs fired the mortars, and suspected that the Izetbegović government was behind the massacre in order to produce the very result that was indeed produced: less than 48 hours later, NATO began massive air strikes on Bosnian Serb positions, effectively entering the war on the side of the Muslims.

She adds: “Staging attacks on one’s own side for propaganda purposes is an aspect of psychological war familiar to specialists. It is called ‘black propaganda’.”

* * *

Standing in the market some twenty-four years after the attacks—it was filled with shoppers and had a prosperous air—I had no way of verifying which outline of history was correct. But one thing that was clear to me in the market was that, in most tellings of Yugoslavia wars, the guilt is apportioned to the Serbs, from 1918 until 1999 and beyond: It was the Serbs who caused World War I; jury-rigged Yugoslavia and its early constitution; provoked a war with Hitler’s Germany; upset the delicate balance of Tito’s Yugoslavia; aggressively sought war in 1992 with Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina; and, finally, sought to “cleanse” Kosovo of its Muslim population.

Again, such a narrative may be the correct interpretation of history. But what it lacks is a more nuanced understanding of Yugoslavia’s rise and fall, and going forward—in a badly gerrymandered part of Europe—it positions Serbia as the pariah nation, much the way after World War I Germany was blamed for all the horrors of that conflict. That helped English and French politicians win reelection during the 1920s, but it also sowed the seeds of future wars in the 1930s.

One thing I learned in my travels across the Balkans is that not many in the region are interested in truth and reconciliation. Instead it struck me that the goal in many quarters is to use war guilt against the Serbs as an exercise in nation-building, risky as that may be.

As a friend pointed out to me during one of my stops: “Serbia isn’t exactly a forgive-and-forget kind of place.” Ambassador William Bullitt’s comment about the Treaty of Versailles could well work for the Dayton Peace Agreement: “This isn’t a treaty of peace… I can see at least eleven wars in it.”

And it was during my travels that I came across a newspaper article describing how Russia is arming Serbia with late model anti-aircraft missiles and overall taking the aggrieved nation under its military wing. The last time that happened was in 1914. How did that work out?


Next up: Around Sarajevo. Read the earlier installments 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.