Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: By Bus Across the Republika Srpska

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


The bus station in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, a component of Bosnia-Herzegovina, once a region of Yugoslavia. Banja Luka is largely cut off from Europe, with few flights, trains, and international buses. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

I had planned on taking a local bus from Jasenovac to Banja Luka, the capital of the Republika Srpska within the Bosnia Federation, but it proved impossible. The closest larger town to Jasenovac is Gradiška, where there had also been a concentration camp, but I had no way to get there and then the only bus to Banja Luka was in the early evening.

Against my instincts, I wondered about hitchhiking, but there wasn’t a main route to the capital, only a series of back roads, and even I have the feeling that I have aged out of hitchhiking.

In the end, a travel friend of mine heard about my dilemma in one of our emails, and she kindly booked a car that for $40 met me at the Jasenovac memorial and drove me to my hotel in Banja Luka.

By Car to Banja Luka

The driver was waiting for me when I got back from my walk around the ghost town. He said he had not been waiting long, and as soon as he shifted around some things scattered in the front seat, we were off to Banja Luka.

I had thought he might take the route through the border crossing at Stara Gradiška, where there had been another concentration camp, similar to Jasenovac. Instead, we crossed the Sava River immediately on a bridge close to the museum and picked our way across Bosnia on secondary roads until we reached a new divided highway for the last part of the 80 km drive to Banja Luka.

Passing through villages on the way, I saw Orthodox churches, minarets, and Catholic chapels, all within a short space of each other, and as we drove along the driver talked freely about his time as a soldier in the war. He began by saying: “I never feel comfortable crossing into Croatia, and I am always happy when I leave.”

From that, I concluded that he had fought for either the Muslims in Bosnia or for the Republika Srpska, but the more he spoke the clearer it became that he had fought for the Serbs, as he kept talking about the ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs from the Krajina, the borderland between what is now Croatia and the Bosnian federation.

The Krajina Serbs

Originally Serbs were moved into those lands to protect the Austro-Hungarian empire from the encroachments of the Ottoman Empire. Later, Tito finessed possible conflict involving a large Serbian minority in eastern Croatia by passing amendments to the Yugoslav constitution that granted minority rights to disenfranchised communities across the federation.

With Croatia’s declaration of independence in 1992, the so-called Krajina Serbs became a lost tribe without a country, and they remained in no-man’s land until the United States supported a major Croatian offensive, Operation Storm, that cleansed the Krajina of its Serbian population.

In effect, it was the largest ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav civil war and was only possible with American support. My driver had been one of the foot soldiers who accompanied the banished Serbs on their retreat to what is now the Republika Srpska.

The Last Days of Yugoslavia

There’s a quiet, subdued air to Banja Luka—some might call it the “last days of Yugoslavia”—but I have always enjoyed stopping there in my travels, perhaps because I don’t have to deal with anyone from the government that is forever threatening Bosnia-Herzegovina with dissolution.

I stayed overnight at the Palace Hotel, which, other than allowing smoking in the dining room, is perfect for a short visit. I ate the local barley soup and drank a Croatian white wine (surprised to find it on the menu), and the next morning I was at the national library when it opened at 8 a.m.

One of the many sad realities about Bosnia-Herzegovina is that it has two of many national institutions, including its library. There is a Serbian national library in Banja Luka, and a Muslim-Croat national library in Sarajevo, and as best as I can determine, neither staff speaks with the other.

Normally, we have dealt only with Sarajevo, but on this occasion I figured that as long as I was in Banja Luka, I ought to introduce myself and offer it some of the sixty thousand books that our Switzerland group had been given to distribute around Bosnia.

At the least, I might learn a little more about the divisions in the country, which between the middle ages and 1995 was never more than an imperial appendage.

The Second National Library

The man on duty at the desk at the national library heard my spiel about free books in many languages (French, German, Italian, English, and Spanish), but he explained that the local problem wasn’t a lack of interest in foreign literature but the practicalities of shelving and rooms in which to display books.

In short, the national library in Banja Luka had little of either, and the man walked me over to the “foreign literature” section which I would guess had less than three hundred books. He was sorry that they could not accept our generous offer, but where would they put the books?

I explained that they were welcome to take a few boxes (we have hundreds) and give the books away to anyone who wanted to take a copy, and he said he would speak with his director. (Which is how many conversations in this part of the world end.)

He also put me in touch with the graduate faculty of the local university, and several weeks after I was in Banja Luka I heard from a professor of foreign languages, who wrote that she would be grateful for whatever books we could deliver to her. (Later, when the books arrived in a nearby Bosnian city, she wrote to say she had no access to a car and could not pick them up.)

Bus Route Politics

After my library visit, I turned my attention to getting to Sarajevo, knowing that the Talgo train was no longer running. At the hotel desk, I had been given a phone number for the bus station and some times of possible buses.

I had also found a schedule online, but to me it looked out-of-date. Finally, I was told that occasionally mini-vans and local cars fill up with passengers near the town center and leave on the three-hour drive whenever they fill up.

With all this information spinning in my head, I decided to take a taxi to the Autobuska Stanica and see if there was a bus departing soon for Sarajevo.

In general, buses run all the time in the Balkans. What I had not figured out is that, in addition to two national libraries, Bosnia-Herzegovina also has two bus routes between the capitals: one serves Muslim and Croat towns en route; the other serves Serbian villages.

Not clearly understanding my choice, I simply booked the next available bus (the fare was about $10), which turned out to be a Republika Srpska local that avoided Muslim and Croatian settlements.

A Hundred Miles in Five Hours

It took me close to five hours to make the journey across Bosnia-Herzegovina, a little more than a hundred miles, but I saw numerous towns and villages in the divided republic that otherwise I would have missed.

Every hour or so, the driver pulled the bus into a gas station so that the passengers (we were a handful at best) could smoke cigarettes, drink small cups of coffee, or eat grilled sausages. As best as I could tell, the Republika Srpska exists on coffee, nicotine, and beer.

For the first three hours of the ride, we wove among the small villages nestled against the south banks of the River Sava. I had the feeling that the driver knew personally many of the families along the route and anticipated who might dart out of a roadside house to wave down the slow-moving bus.

In this fashion, we crept through Šereg Ilova, Derventa, Roje, Kotorsko, and, finally, Doboj, which otherwise is a forty-five-minute drive from Banja Luka. I should have been impatient with all the wondering, but instead I loved my Republika Srpska bus tour, and, besides, I had with me Christopher Bennett’s Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace, a book about the country’s political stalemate.

Not a Self-Sustaining Democracy

The book was originally published in 2011, but my edition was an updated paperback from 2016. I think the book can be read in ten years and not lose any of its immediacy about the failures of Bosnian politics (which are one of the constants of modern Europe).

Toward the end, Bennett 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.

Hence the central government in Sarajevo has almost no sway over the Serbs in Republika Srpska, or for that matter over the many Croatian communities and cantons in Herzegovina. Bennett writes: “At its simplest, the Bosnian Question boils down to two issues: how some 2.2 million Bosniaks [meaning muslims] can live amid 4.5 million Croats and 8.5 million Serbs in former Yugoslavia.”

Later in the book he notes: “The drafters of the [1995] Dayton Peace Agreement were, nevertheless, under no illusions about the settlement. It was a means to end a war, not the basis of a permanent solution to the Bosnian Question.”

And he poses this riddle of endless fractionalization: “If Croats in Croatia and Muslims in Bosnia had the right to secede from Yugoslavia, then Serbs had the right to secede from Croatia and Bosnia and to remain part of Yugoslavia.”

Polling Progress with Fresh Paint

Although a car ride to Banja Luka and a bus ride to Sarajevo are not the same as a graduate seminar in Bosnian economic development, I did in my travels see a glimmer of hope for Bosnia-Herzegovina in the prosperity of many hamlets off the beaten trails.

I am not saying that rural Bosnia can match the economic progress of Slovenia or Croatia along the Dalmatian coast, but I did sense that the accumulated savings of Bosnia’s foreign workers (in Germany, France, England, and Switzerland, for example) have made a difference in raising the tides of prosperity among all ethnic groups in Bosnia.

Many houses that ten or twenty years ago would have been burned-out shells are now getting new coats of paint or adding a story for an expanding family.

In 2011, Bennett could write that some 2.4 million persons in Bosnia were “dependent on foreign aid” but in the intervening years that number has decreased, even if the economy lacks export minerals, an airline, or tourist infrastructure.

Bird on the Wire

In many respects, Bosnia-Herzegovina is the true heir of Yugoslavia, in that it’s a multi-national state with weak finances that lacks a strong central government.

Bosniaks constitute a slight majority making up about 50.1 percent of the 3.2 million population, while Serbs number 30 percent and Croats about 15 percent. (At the end of the war 1.2 million Bosnians were living abroad, and 1.2 million were internally displaced persons.)

The real issue is that the ethnic divisions are not so much village by village but street by street across the country. (An ethnic map in color looks like a Jackson Pollock painting.)

In a larger sense, Republika Srpska is the wings of a bird, while Muslims live in the center and Croats dominate at the foot of the country, along the Adriatic coast. But were any of the ethnic communities to declare independence from the federation, it would doom the country to a renewed civil war.

Next installment: The many worlds of Sarajevo.

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.