Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Serbs of Banja Luka


A Bosnian Serb war monument in front of the Banja Luka railway station. Banja Luka is the administrative capital of Republika Srpska, one of the constituent parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The old Yugoslav station only sees a few trains coming and going each day. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

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

I did not return to Bosnia until the winter before the pandemic, when I was doing research for a book about Eastern Europe and decided to ride the train from Banja Luka (the capital of the Republika Srpska) to Sarajevo, which is the capital of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For a while there had been a through train from Zagreb to Sarajevo (as well there should be, between the capitals of neighboring countries), but in 2019 it was no longer running, and I had to ride a bus from Zagreb for several hours to catch the train at Banja Luka.

As the Nobel Prize winning novelist, Ivo Andric, said of Bosnia: “Lands of great discoveries are also lands of great injustices.”

The Serbs of Banja Luka

In the press, Banja Luka is the capital of a “breakaway” republic of angry Serbs who are resentful of living in compact with Muslims and Croatians, many of whom are Catholic.

On the ground, however, Banja Luka is a sleepy provincial city with the ruins of a medieval fortress, several museums dwelling on historic Turkish oppression, and a main street of department stores and hotels. What I liked best about Banja Luka is that the art museums are open until 10 p.m., so that after dinner I could wander through several galleries.

The main (and only) train station in Banja Luka is on the edge of the downtown, past the modern building that houses the regional parliament—the men who would be kings. Sadly, despite being one country, Bosnia-Herzegovina has two of everything, so that Serbs, Croats, and Muslims can lead discrete, parallel lives.

I took a bus to the train station, but as it dropped me in parking lot nearby I had to walk through an abandoned outdoor shopping mall (of sorts) to get to the departure hall. Down a few such alleys homeless men were burning garbage in old oil drums to stay warm, which gave the scene the dystopian air of a post-nuclear winter.

There were only a handful of passengers on the afternoon train to Sarajevo. The modern Talgo cars and engine, made in Spain, had been a gift from the European Union, to speed along Bosnian political integration, but clearly not many were buying in.

I bought a ticket in a vast hall that was otherwise empty, and sat on a bench in a deserted waiting room, marveling that Tito must have rebuilt the station in the 1960s in a moment of optimism about the future of his railway worker councils.

Maybe then there were dozens of trains a day to Zagreb and Belgrade, but today there were only a handful of local trains, notably the high-speed Talgo to Sarajevo that seemed to be running on the fumes of the international community.

I took a seat by a window, unpacked my computer, thermos and book, and spent the next five hours gliding across Bosnia on tracks that Austria had laid down in the late nineteenth century, when it dreamed of connecting its imperial rail network from Vienna to Salonica so that the Hapsburg empire might have an Aegean warm-water port.

Arrival in Sarajevo

The main station in Sarajevo—yet another Titoist temple of tired concrete—was cavernous and empty, echoing the cadences of a few travelers coming in, or going out, to the cold. I had passed through its gates in summer 1976, but then the station was at the heart of a bustling socialist community, with train connections both to the Dalmatian coast and Belgrade, if not a brave new world. Now it felt like the terminus at the end of the world, especially on a night in February, when snow flurries blew into the main waiting room where some of the doors were broken.

With no taxis waiting in front of the station, I carried my bag to my Airbnb.The sidewalks were coated with ice and snow, so I walked in the street. It hardly mattered, as there were few cars about and my destination was ten minutes away, in an old apartment building that dated to the Austrian annexation in 1908.

As much as the killing of the archduke in 1914, the annexation was what tipped the scales to war in southeast Europe in the early twentieth century. It drove a Germanic wedge into the growing (Russian-dominated) slavic world of the Balkans, and proclaimed the Austrian intention of pushing its empire south (along a rail line) into Novi Pazar, Macedonia, and Salonica, where France, Britain, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire had their own ambitions. (I keep searching for a book that I hope has the title: The Railroad Politics of the Great Powers That Led to World War I.)

At my Airbnb, I was assigned the front parlor, which I loved. It had a large desk (worthy of an Austrian governor), a porcelain coal stove, old prints of historic Sarajevo, and a small terrace that overlooked the shunting trams that give the city its soundtrack of grinding steel wheels.

My parlor didn’t come with kitchen privileges but there are many restaurants in Sarajevo, and quickly I found one that served eggs for breakfast and barley soup in the evening. In the old part of Sarajevo, there’s a line on the main pedestrian sidewalk that shows the divide between the historic Ottoman and Austrian neighborhoods. On one side of the line the coffee is Turkish brewed up in a cezve while a few feet away the kaffee comes “mit Schlag” (with whipped cream) and the pastries might well be Sachertorte.

Who was Gavrilo Princip?

As I did in summer 1976, I devoted much of my stay in Sarajevo to retracing the steps of Gavrilo Princip in summer 1914, when he was in the hunt to assassinate the Austrian archduke and heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand. This time, however, not only could I wander through the small riverside museum devoted to the outbreak of World War I, but I had in hand Tim Butcher’s The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War, which is an account of the walk (retraced as well by Butcher) that Princip made from his Bosnian village to Sarajevo for what turned out to be a rendezvous with many destinies.

Butcher’s thesis is that Princip wasn’t a Serb nationalist bent on destroying the Austrian monarchy so much as a Yugoslav idealist (a bit like my grandfather?) who sought to liberate the South Slavs from imperial domination. He had collaborators in Sarajevo, and overlords in Belgrade, but in the end only he managed what in anarchy circles was called: “the propaganda of the deed.”

I went on a walking tour of the old city, and along the way the group stopped at the building that had once been both the city hall and the national library. When it was the city hall—in 1914—Franz Ferdinand went there immediately after his motorcade was attacked with bombs (they missed). He took tea with the mayor and then set off in his car to the local hospital, so that he could visit one of his bodyguards, who had been slightly wounded in the first attack. It was on that second drive through Sarajevo that his driver became confused, stopped the royal car near the Latin Bridge (over the Miljacka river), and stalled just in front of one of the assassins, Gavrilo Princip, who was standing with his pistol. (Princip had thought, after the first bombs missed, that the planned attack was a failure.)

With both the archduke and his wife in an open car directly in front of him, Princip fired twice at point blank range and killed them both, almost instantly. Franz Ferdinand’s last words were: “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Don’t die! Live for our children!” By that point she was gone—to be followed by the millions that were to die in the world war that followed their assassination.

The National Library in Sarajevo

In Titoist Yugoslavia, the ornate Moorish-designed city hall became the national library, which in 1992 burned under shellfire from the surrounding hills during the civil war. Most likely Serbian artillery doomed the building and the library, which lost some two million volumes (books and periodicals) in the fire. On my walking tour, I heard the story of the fire, and how some of the books (but not many) were saved and how the national library had moved across the city to the campus of the national university.

As the walk continued to snake through the old town, I decided to visit the new national library and to learn if it might be interested in receiving a donation of books. In Geneva (where I live) I had a friend, Eugene Schulman, who had some 6,000 books in his library and who was approaching age 90. For years his circle of friends had discussed where he might donate his collection at the end of his life. His Geneva friends had contacted local libraries and others in places as far afield as France, Australia, East Timor, and Tunisia, all of which, in the end, said no to inheriting his books. They were happy to have the books; they just didn’t want to pay for the shipping.

The next day, to use a Willy Loman expression, I “cold-called” at the national library and had the great fortune to meet with the deputy director, Mrs. Bedita Islamović, a woman of grace and professionalism who understood immediately what was being offered and who, on the spot, accepted the gift.

Persuading Gene to ship his books to Sarajevo was an easy sell, as the national library offered to create a private room in his honor and to display all his books (mostly politics, history, science, and philosophy) on shelves. Still, it took about six months to organize the packing and shipping of his books from Geneva to Sarajevo, but in September 2019 all the books were in place, and the national library held a dedication ceremony in honor of the book donation, as this was the first private collection to reach Sarajevo since the war ended in 1995.

In the remarks he wrote for the occasion, he said:

May my meager gift help contribute to the replacement of the two million volumes lost in the holocaust that was the Bosnian war. And may its contents help teach us to hate and avoid war, heal our planet, and help us to find meaning in life. May it be a seed in the renaissance of a new enlightenment.

Next installment: Once more to Bosnia, this time via Melania Trump’s Slovenia and Croatia’s killing fields.

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.