Across the Balkans: 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 IV of a series.

A group of people walking in the snowDescription automatically generated

Sarajevo’s old Turkish quarter.

To cover the siege lines that once encircled Sarajevo took most of the afternoon. My driver had been a teenager during the war years, and he well remembered the terror that was associated with daily errands or going to school (when it was open).

At the same time he was now part of the new Sarajevo, that which is welcoming tourists in summer and skiers in winter, and on our drive around the canton of Sarajevo (it includes mountains and suburbs) he was forever pointing out sites other than gun emplacements.

The drive reminded me how difficult it is to master the geography of Sarajevo, such are the rolling valleys and hills that surround the city. When the winter Olympic games were held in Sarajevo, everyone remarked on how accessible the ski runs were to the city that stretches under the crests of hills. (Some city neighborhoods even have ski lifts.)

During the war years, many of the surrounding alps were in the hands of the Bosnian Serb army, and it used the high grounds to rain shells on the city.

Prior to the siege Sarajevo and its surrounding municipalities had a population of about 500,000, of whom over half (260,000) were Muslims. Serbs numbered some 160,000 while Croats (35,000), Yugoslavs (57,000), and others (20,000) made up the difference.

Although there were distinct ethnic neighborhoods, in other parts of the city the populations were mixed together in the same apartment blocks and streets, which made disengaging the city during the siege such a deadly business.

Dark as it sounds, both sides in the fighting had something to gain from the extended siege. For Bosnian Serbs, especially those who had lived in the city for generations, the siege was a way to hang on to their country’s capital city, its center of transport, and many of its administrative headquarters. To lose Sarajevo, so believed the Bosnian Serb leadership, was a way to lose the war and end up dead or homeless.

For the Muslims, the siege became a symbol of their hope to break away from Yugoslavia and to live independently from their Serb and Croat neighbors. It might mean enduring casualties and starvation, but the Muslim leadership thought it made more sense, and generated better press copy, to endure the siege than to retreat from the capital and to be on the run in Bosnian mountains, especially in winter.

In all, some 13,000 people were killed in Sarajevo during the siege, and the majority of them were Muslims. Many others fled the city and the country. About 100,000 people never returned.

Another telling statistic of the war is that now few Serbs live in the city. They represent less than five percent of the population while before the war they accounted for twenty-five percent.

* * *

In my reading, snatched at cafés during breaks in my days, I was surprised to come across so many interpretations of the siege.

From my own 1990s memories of the war, I had thought that the Serbs were largely to blame for the atrocities that killed so many Sarajevans. But the more I read, and the more people I spoke with locally, the cloudier my convictions came.

In The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt, Julian Borger, a Guardian correspondent, writes about the hunt for, among others, Ratko Mladić:

In general, the bigger the prize the harder the pursuit. Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb commander who orchestrated the siege of Sarajevo and the capture of Srebrenica, was wanted for genocide and crimes against humanity. Catching him would have been a coup, but he had withdrawn to a mountain stronghold befitting a Bond villain, a nuclear bunker Tito had built at Han Pijesak, in eastern Bosnia. There he was surrounded by concentric rings of bodyguards.

He makes it clear that Mladić, Karadžić, and others in the Bosnian Serb leadership targeted the citizens of Sarajevo as instruments of war.

That view of the war and the siege, however, misses some of the subtlety that emerges in Tim Butcher’s excellent biography of Gavrilo Princip, The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War.

Butcher retraces the path that Princip walked from his hometown in northwest Bosnia to Sarajevo, and in the course of that journey, Butcher recalls his time as a British war correspondent during the siege of Sarajevo (when he was often holed up in the Holiday Inn or dodging shells around the city). He captures some of the contradictions of the fighting when he writes:

The city’s Serb Orthodox churches were largely left alone, as were Serb cultural centres and other buildings clearly linked to the Serb community. I had friends who endured the siege inside the city and who were treated no differently by their fellow Sarajevans, even though it was common knowledge they were ethnic Serbs. Through my work as a journalist I often came across a senior general defending the city from the Bosnian Serbs, a man called Jovan Divjak, who was himself Serbian.

Then there are Diana Johnstone’s conclusions in Fool’s Crusade, which takes the view that the reporting in Bosnia often lacked background and objectivity. She writes:

The reality was complex, and steeped in lies, myth, and history. The reporters sent to report on the “siege of Sarajevo” were mostly too new to the region to be able to distinguish truth from lies. The mass media wanted a simple story. This meant something with “human interest”, a pathetic story of innocent victims on one side and an evil villain on the other. Soon all photos of bereaved civilians were identified as Muslim, even if they were Serb. The story was easier to sell if it was clear who the “good guys” were and who the “bad guys”.

She continues:

The “story” could only be the martyrdom of unarmed Muslims and of Sarajevo under siege. The fact that the Muslim party was maintaining the “siege of Sarajevo” (occasionally shelling the Sarajevo airport, for instance, to block relief flights) in order to win foreign support, was too cynical a reality to serve up to Western consumers of mediated wars. It was precisely in 1994, when the Bosnian Serbs were on the defensive and more disposed than the Muslims to make peace, that the portrayal of the Muslims as helpless victims abandoned by a heartless world to Serbian “genocide” reached a peak. This was the year when a group of French intellectuals, propelled by fashionable opinion writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, launched a “Sarajevo list” for the European Parliament elections, with the slogan “Europe lives or dies in Sarajevo”.

* * *

In Sarajevo’s war tourism, the showcase is the Tunnel Museum that sits next to the city airport. During the war, one of the few lifelines to the outside world from Sarajevo—at least if you were Muslim–was through a makeshift tunnel that miners dug under the main airport runways.

Through it supplies could come from Mostar and the wider world, and it was also path that anyone wishing to flee Sarajevo had to take in order to escape the fighting.

For a long time the tunnel was little more than a dank shaft, as you might find in a coal mine, and anyone passing under the runway had to crawl or walk stooped over to reach the other side.

Later, Bosnian miners expanded its capacity, to accommodate two-way traffic, phone lines, and rails to ship freight. But it was never more than an escape hatch and limited the supplies that could be brought behind the siege lines.

Butcher writes in Trigger:

For the Bosnian citizens of Sarajevo the tunnel provided the city’s umbilical cord. Food, ammunition and fuel were all dragged through it into the city, along with troops deploying to and fro as fighting shifted between frontlines. As the seasons passed, plans for the tunnel became more ambitious, and by the end of the war electricity cables and phone lines ran through it, all of which had to be strung across the open vastness of Mount Igman. It was an incredible story of survival through ingenuity and determination, but it came at a high price, with near-constant combat along active and bloody frontlines that ranged right around much of the mountain. For the Bosnian Muslim forces the loss of Mount Igman was simply not an option.

During the siege, the only thing marking the entrance to the tunnel was a small house (one showing numerous bullet marks), but now above the shaft is a museum, complete with a gift shop and numerous small rooms that show Sarajevo war footage on a continuous loop.

Here again, the only narrative is that of genocidal Serbs, and the films matched a passage that I later came across in Borger, who writes:

They were attacked while attending funerals, while in ambulances, trams, and buses, and while cycling. They were attacked while tending gardens, or shopping in markets, or clearing rubbish in the city. Children were targeted while playing or walking in the streets. These attacks were mostly carried out in daylight. They were not in response to any military threat. The attackers could for the most part easily tell that their victims were engaged in everyday civilian activities.

* * *

From the tunnel, my guide and I drove into the hills above Sarajevo, to get the view of the city skyline from what had been, during the Winter Olympics, the bobsled run on Trebević mountain.

About three-quarters of the way to the top, the roads were full of unplowed snow, about a meter deep. We stopped the car near to the bobsled run and peered through some trees at Sarajevo under the mist and clouds.

The bobsled run is falling into disrepair and in many places covered with graffiti, giving it the look of a Bronx subway station in the 1970s.

Down the road we passed a mountain hotel, new since the Olympics I am sure, and some other SUVs taking tourists on their appointed rounds.

On the way down the hills, I asked my driver if he could find the narrow-gauge railway station in Bistrik where I had arrived in my travels in summer 1976. He thought he could find it, although the search involved some consultation on his phone, as the line had not been operating since 1978, and since then the tracks have been taken up and the stations on the line abandoned.

Before getting to the station, we stopped so that I could walk among the headstones in the city’s Jewish cemetery, which during the recent civil war had also been a stretch of the frontlines between Serbs and Muslims.

Snow was covering most of the headstones, and many of the taller markers had fallen over, giving the entire cemetery the air of neglect, if not a vanished civilization.

It was Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution in Spain and Portugal, after 1492, who first came to Bosnia and Sarajevo, and the community thrived for almost 500 years until the 1941 arrival of the Ustashe and the Nazis.

Those Jews not lucky enough to flee were deported to Jasenovac and other concentration camps, and at the end of the war nothing was left of Sarajevo’s Jewish community except the remains of many synagogues and these headstones in the cemetery.

Later in my visit I went to both the Jewish Museum, housed in one of the synagogues, and to the National Library, where the Sarajevo Haggadah is on display.

Actually, to be clear, the haggadah is kept under lock and key in a secure room guarded by glass and sensors and only open at select times during the week. I never managed to stand next to the book during its visiting hours (obscure even to the museum staff); all I could do was look at it through a door of thick security glass.

In the Jewish museum, however, I did see a facsimile of some pages and read a description that captures the essence of both the book and the Jewish community in Sarajevo. It reads:

The Jewish Haggadah is one of the oldest haggadahs in the world. Reading the Haggadah is a Jewish ritual performed at home at Seder on the first nights of Pesach, the Passover. It consists of prayers, anecdotes, explanations, psalms and hymns, all focusing on the exodus and the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Sarajevo Haggadah was probably composed in Spain in the 14th century, and came to Sarajevo via Italy and Dubrovnik following the expulsion of the Jews. It was in the possession of the Koen family until 1894, when it was donated to the National Museum in Sarajevo, where it is still housed. The story goes that during World War II it was saved by being kept under the threshold of a mosque in a village at the foot of Mt Bjelasnica; during the 1992-1995 war, it was again kept safe, this time in the vaults of the National Bank.

No wonder it now has its own room and vault.

* * *

From the Jewish cemetery it was a short drive to Bistrik, where after a few wrong turns we found the remains of the narrow-gauge station, which has been turned into (shabby) worker housing.

In place of the tracks out front there was a busy road, and I had to dodge traffic to walk around the outside of the building, to see if I could remember what it had looked like in 1976.

On my walk I found on the side of the building a plaque to the departed railway, which spoke to the imperial dreams of the Austrians that in Bosnia lasted less than a generation. It reads:

The railway station in Bistrik was built in 1906 as part of the project to lay the Eastern Railways line from Sarajevo to Vardište. The building was designed by the Engineering Department of the State Railways of Bosnia and Hercegovina in the “alpine” or “chalet” style used for many railway stations. The Eastern Railways line ran from Sarajevo down the Prača alley to join the Drina valley, ending in Vardište, took fifteen years to lay, and was completed in 1906. The cost of the construction broke all world records, on account of the numerous cuttings and embankments and no fewer than 99 tunnels. It remained in use until 1978. The building was restored in 1982 when the idea was mooted to reopen the narrow-gauge railway from Sarajevo to Pale for tourism, but the project came to nothing.

I found the description rather bland for a railway line that, as much as anything, might have been the primary cause of World War I.

When the line was finished in 1906, it was only the first segment of a railway that was contemplated to push Austrian influence into the Sandžak of Novi Pazar—a wedge of land between Serbia, Montenegro, and what is now Kosovo but which was a Turkish possession.

The way for Austria to secure its influence was to complete the Novibazar Railway, which would have run, in its entirety, from Sarajevo to Salonica.

More than the shooting of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo in 1914, the contemplation of a Sandžak railway stirred the passions of nearly every power in Europe, including Russia, Turkey, Great Britain, and France, all of whom wanted to limit Austria’s push to the east.

The historian Arthur J. May writes in the first sentence of a 1938 article, The Novibazar Railway Project: “If the Bosnian crisis of 1908–9 may properly be described as the dress rehearsal for 1914, the Austrian project, announced in early 1908, to construct a railway from the Bosnian border through the Sandjak of Novibazar [both names have various spellings in English] helped to set the stage.” I had come across the article in the footnotes to one of the books I was reading, and later in my hotel I managed to download a copy from an internet library.

In the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, occupation of Bosnia was awarded to Austria-Hungary, and they were given permission to build a rail line across the Sandžak, which had remained Turkish lands.

Initially none of the great powers gave much thought to the idea of an Austrian line from Bosnia to Salonica. As May writes: “Experts discounted the military and direct political value of the Novibazar railway to Austria-Hungary; it would merely strengthen the position of the Dual Monarchy in the Sandjak and give it a stouter claim to possess the territory in the event of the disruption of the Ottoman Empire.”

Only after plans were announced for a surveying party to work out the route from the Bosnian border to Mitrovitza (now in Kosovo) did countries such as Russia, France, and Great Britain react to the expanding Austrian threat in Southeast Europe. May writes colorfully:

In Russian the fury attained sensational dimensions, as the press, regardless of political persuasion, but more particularly Pan-Slav organs, assailed the Sandjak scheme as hypocritical and treasonable and characterized it as a fresh manifestation of Austria’s proverbial ingratitude.

Others charged Germany as being the real culprit behind the scheme, although little proof of the truth of that allegation exists. Serbia, in particular, felt that the line across the Sandžak would prevent it (and Russia) from building a competing rail line from the Danube to the Adriatic, and France and Britain warned that they would withhold approval of the project until the rights of Macedonians (under Turkish rule) improved. The Allies feared that Austria was overstepping its ambitions in the Balkans. May writes: “The construction of the railway, it feared, would transform Salonica into an Austrian commercial and naval outpost.”

The Sandžak crisis—more than the 1914 assassination of the archduke—was an opening act of the Great War, in that it showed Germany and Austria trying to impose their will in the Balkans on Serbia, Russia, France, and Great Britain.

May writes: “Aehrenthal [Austrian foreign minister] in 1908 achieved his purpose of making Europe aware that ‘the ramshackle monarchy’ had vitality and intended to play the part of a great power. Appetite grew with the eating: the success in the Sandjak affair inspired the Ballplatz [Austria] for a larger move, the annexation of Bosnia.” Only time stood between the annexation of Bosnia and a war involving Austria and Serbia.

In that regard, the fading cornerstone at the Bistrik railway station in Sarajevo might well read:

This rail line was the opening gambit in Austria’s attempt to dominate the politics of the Balkans and to prevent Russia (and its proxy, Serbia) from securing a rail outlet to the Adriatic. The line was to have run from Sarajevo to Salonica, on the Aegean Sea, and, if completed, would have allowed Austria to challenge France, Russia, and Great Britain for influence in the East. Although the projected line through the Sandjak was to have been narrow-gauge, it put the European confrontation that became the Great War on an express track.

Unfortunately, the real war rarely gets into the historical markers.

Next up: Sarajevo and the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 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.