Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: By Rail to Sarajevo


Next to the Latin Bridge overlooking the Miljacka river in Sarajevo, where Gavrilo Princip shot the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, the spark that lit the bonfires of World War I.

This is the first part in a series about Bosnia-Herzegovina thirty years after its civil wars.

My first trip to Bosnia took place in summer 1976, after I graduated from college. I had spent part of my last spring semester studying Serbo-Croatian and reading history with Professor Robert Beard, and with my diploma in hand I headed to Europe, where I had arranged to spend part of the summer living with a family in Nis, Yugoslavia, a city in southern Serbia that is about fifty miles from the Bulgarian border.

At the time, Yugoslavia was the most moderate of the so-called satellite countries in Eastern Europe. It was easy for Americans to visit (you got a visa on arrival), and Yugoslavs were disposed to welcome foreigners. It even had a thriving tourist industry, although mostly confined to the Dalmatian coast (historically Venetian, now part of Croatia).

I was partly drawn to Yugoslavia was because one of my grandfathers—Milivoy S. Stanoyevich—was born a Serb, although he emigrated to the United States in 1908. On arrival, he spoke German, French, Czech, Russian, and, of course, Serbian, but that didn’t prevent him from learning English and some years later earning a PhD at the University of California (Berkeley), where his fields were Slavonic languages and history.

His thesis was about Tolstoy’s theories of social reform (“His purpose was to devote himself to rural life…”), and he wrote other books about Yugoslav literature and Russian foreign policy (he feared its expansion), but once installed in the United States he never returned to Serbia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, or to Yugoslavia, largely because he never trusted any of the successive governments, which he assumed would have him arrested.

A Serbian Exile

The reason for these fears stemmed from his last job in Belgrade, where he was otherwise teaching high school. His intellect had earned him the part-time position of tutor to Crown Prince Alexander, who around 1907 was still a teenager and struggling with his studies.

Presumably my grandfather showed up periodically at the palace and worked with the crown prince on whatever subject needed attention that week, but he earned the wrath of royal family by his insertion of democratic values into the core curriculum and by the publication of a short book, Youth in the Present.

Clearly, the Serbian king, Peter Karadjordjević, didn’t have much time for anyone teaching his son about democracy—or writing about it—and the local courts sentenced my grandfather to his choice between prison or exile. My grandfather chose exile, first in Geneva, Switzerland, and later in the United States, and to pay for his passage from the old world to the new his father sold off a wooded lot on the small family farm near Zajecar. (As a small boy my grandfather tended sheep.)

Once settled in the United States (he lived in Pittsburgh and Berkeley before settling in New York City, where later he was a professor at Columbia University), my grandfather took the view that he would be better off distancing himself from both the monarchy (which lasted until 1940) and communism (which held sway from 1945 until my grandfather died in 1973).

Was Milivoy more Serb or American? If anything, I believe that my grandfather was a Yugoslav, someone who believed in the 19th-century ideal of a federation in the Balkans that would keep Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenes, Macedonians, and Montenegrins away from the imperial designs of the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians. He wrote books and articles about Yugoslavia and wanted very much for it to succeed.

At the same time, he never wanted to tempt fate and return either to Belgrade (where he had studied and taught) or to Koprivnica, the village in the Timok valley near the Serbia – Bulgaria border where he was born. But I am sure it would have pleased him that his only grandson would be heading to Yugoslavia after college to make some sense of his early life.

Yugoslavia Summer

I cannot say that I did a lot during my Yugoslav summer. I stayed with the family of Professor Milan Milosević (no relation to the warlord) who had done research into the life of my grandfather and befriended my parents. During the day, his children took me for picnics, where we ate cevapcici (think of a hamburger sausage) and swam in mountain streams.

Sometimes I would go for coffee with an older woman who lived in Nis, as she had been born in England and loved speaking in English. (Her first question to me concerned the pronunciation of the word “scuba”.) On the weekends Milan would drive me in the family Yugo around Yugoslavia. Once we went down to Prishtina (now the capital of Kosovo) so that I could understand both historical Serbia and Albanian irredentism. (Professor Stevan K. Pavlowitch begins his excellent Serbia: The History of an Idea with this phrase: “Serbias have come and gone, and they have moved about.”)

Another weekend was spent in Belgrade, where Milan told everyone—bus drivers, museum ticket sellers, etc.—that my father was the godson of the inventor Nikola Tesla. (For years I dismissed the connection between my grandfather and Tesla as pure fabrication, but lately I have discovered that the two men did know each other well in the Serbian community of New York City, and my father’s given name was Nikola.) Back in Nis, when I tried to hide in my bedroom to read a book or write a letter, Milan would show up with his accordion, and serenade me with local songs.

Toward the end of July, as my stay in Nis was ending, I explained to my hosts that I planned to take a local train to Sarajevo. It is now the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but then it was a regional city in federal Yugoslavia. (Herzegovina lies close the Dalmatian coastline, centered around Mostar.) In those Titoist days, even though Bosnia-Herzegovina was a republic within the Yugoslav federation, all the decisions were made in Belgrade, and on the map there were no borders between the various Yugoslav republics.

No one really knew where Serbia ended or Bosnia began, except a few older people who spoke of the constituent parts of the federation as they had been before 1919, when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes emerged from the wreckage of World War I. In all my Yugoslav travels that summer, I never spoke of Serbia, Croatia or Bosnia—simply Yugoslavia.

Toward Bosnia

To get to Sarajevo (I wanted to see where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated) I hatched a plan to ride a narrow-gauge train across eastern Bosnia. I must have discovered the rail line in the Thomas Cook Continental Timetable, although it was probably in a footnote, as the rail line dated to the Austrian occupation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and might well have been a cause of war in 1914) and a steam engine pulled the open wooden coaches. To make the connection I needed some help.

I thought of catching a local bus in Užice to the end of the line at Priboj, but my hosts thought that was folly, and instead decided to drive me to Vardište, which was a terminus on what had once been the Bosnian Eastern Railway. They said that they had friends near the town, where we could spend the night, and that the next day I could catch my train for Sarajevo.

Part of the reason I was so insistent on taking this particular line is that it ran though Višegrad, where the Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andrić set some his classic novel The Bridge on the Drina. In the novel, the bridge is a symbol of Bosnia’s ethnic tolerance (for centuries Serbs, Croats, and Muslims lived peacefully in Višegrad), but toward the end of the book—with the coming of the Great War in 1914 and the Austrian invasion—the bridge collapses into the river (as did Bosnia’s ethnic tolerance).

Narrow Gauge to Sarajevo

I don’t remember today how I passed the day on the train, but I do remember that for much of the trip the train ran through thick, hilly forests alongside the Drina. I also recall the arching spans of the medieval bridge—a beautiful example of Ottoman architecture—and how I spent a long time on the ride with my neck craned out of the open window, so that I would not miss any detail on the journey. Later, when Bosnia-Herzegovina became engulfed in the wars of the Yugoslav succession, I thought a lot about my narrow-gauge train ride, as some of the worst fighting and ethnic cleansing came in eastern Bosnia.

I remember vividly when the train snaked its way into the narrow valley that is Sarajevo I was shocked to see so many minarets on the city skyline. From my reading, I must have known that Sarajevo was a muslim city, but as Belgrade and that part of Yugoslavia had been absent of religious symbols, I never expected to enter a city that looked more like Damascus than Dubrovnik.

I got off the train in Bistrik, a Sarajevo suburb, and walked to my hotel, which was in the main part of the small city. There I spent several days “walking off” the origins of World War I. Where the assassin Gavrilo Princip stood to kill the Austrian archduke, there were footsteps engraved in the concrete sidewalk. Some of the other assassins had bailed into the Miljacka river (which runs through the center of Sarajevo), but in 1976, in heterogenous Yugoslavia, the first days of the Great War were footnotes from an abstract, bygone past. All that mattered in Bosnia was what might happen to Yugoslavia after Marshal Tito passed the scene. Tito died in 1980, but it took another eleven years for Yugoslavia to come apart along its ethnic seams—the same fault lines still menacing Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Next installment: Around the Republika Srpska and its capital in Banja Luka.


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.