Home Tourism Return to Bosnia and Herzegovina: by train to Sarajevo

Return to Bosnia and Herzegovina: by train to Sarajevo

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Next to the Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River in Sarajevo, where Gavrilo Princip shot dead 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 of a series on Bosnia-Herzegovina thirty years after its civil wars.

My first trip to Bosnia was in the summer of 1976, after I graduated from college. I had spent part of my final spring semester studying Serbo-Croatian and reading history with Professor Robert Beard, and with my degree in hand, I traveled to Europe, where I had planned to spend part of the summer with a family in Nis, Yugoslavia. , a town in southern Serbia located about fifty kilometers from the Bulgarian border.

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

I was partly attracted to Yugoslavia because one of my grandfathers, Milivoy S. Stanoyevich, was born Serbian, although he emigrated to the United States in 1908. When he arrived, he spoke German , French, Czech, Russian and, of course. , Serbian, but this did not prevent him from learning English and a few years later obtaining a doctorate at the University of California (Berkeley), where his fields were Slavic languages ​​and history.

His thesis was on Tolstoy’s theories of social reform (“His goal was to devote himself to rural life… “), and he wrote other books on Yugoslav literature and Russian foreign policy (he feared its expansion), but once settled in the United States, he never returned to Serbia, in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, nor in Yugoslavia, largely because he never trusted any of the successive governments, which he thought would have him arrested.

A Serbian exile

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

Presumably, my grandfather would periodically show up at the palace and work with the crown prince on whatever topic needed attention that week, but he incurred the ire of the royal family by his insertion of democratic values in the basic program and by the publication of a small book, Youth in the present.

Obviously, Serbian King Peter Karadjordjević didn’t have much time for anyone to teach his son about democracy – or write about it – and the local courts sentenced my grandfather to choose between prison or exile. My grandfather chose exile, first to Geneva, Switzerland, then to the United States, and to pay for his passage from the old world to the new, his father sold a piece of wooded land on the small family farm near Zajecar. (When I was a little boy, my grandfather herded sheep.)

Once settled in the United States (he lived in Pittsburgh and Berkeley before settling in New York, where he later served as a professor at Columbia University), my grandfather felt it was better to he distances himself from both the monarchy (which lasted until 1940) and communism (which ruled from 1945 until my grandfather’s death in 1973).

Was Milivoy more Serbian or American? On the contrary, I believe 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 the Montenegrins away from the imperial designs of the Ottomans. and the Austro-Hungarians. He wrote books and articles on Yugoslavia and ardently wanted 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 Serbian-Bulgarian border, where he was born . But I’m sure he would have been happy for his only grandson to go to Yugoslavia after his university studies to give meaning to his beginnings in life.

Yugoslavia Summer

I can’t say I did a lot during my Yugoslav summer. I stayed with the family of Professor Milan Milosević (no relation to the warlord) who had researched my grandfather’s life and befriended my parents. During the day, his kids would take me on picnics, where we ate cevapcici (think hamburger sausage) and swam in mountain streams.

Sometimes I would go for coffee with an older woman who lived in Nis, because she was born in England and loved speaking English. (His first question was about the pronunciation of the word “scuba.”) On weekends, Milan would drive me and the Yugo family through Yugoslavia. Once we went to Prishtina (now the capital of Kosovo) so that I could understand both the history of Serbia and Albanian irredentism. (Professor Stevan K. Pavlowitch begins his excellent Serbia: the story of an idea with this sentence: “The Serbs came and went, and they moved. “)

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 a complete fabrication, but I recently discovered that the two men knew each other well in New York’s Serbian community and that my father’s first name was Nikola.) Nis, when I tried to hide in my room to read a book or write a letter, Milan would appear with his accordion and serenade me with local songs.

Towards the end of July, as my stay in Nis was coming to an end, I explained to my hosts that I had planned to take a local train to Sarajevo. Today it is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but at the time it was a regional city of federal Yugoslavia. (Herzegovina lies near the Dalmatian coast, centered around Mostar.) During the Titoist era, although Bosnia and Herzegovina was a republic within the Yugoslav federation, all decisions were made in Belgrade and on the map there were no borders between the different regions. Yugoslav republics.

No one really knew where Serbia ended or Bosnia began, except for a few elderly people who talked about the constituent parts of the federation as they were before 1919, when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes emerged from the rubble. of the First World War. In all my travels to Yugoslavia that summer, I never talked about Serbia, Croatia or Bosnia, just Yugoslavia.

Towards Bosnia

To get to Sarajevo (I wanted to see where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated), I hatched a plan to cross eastern Bosnia by narrow gauge train. I had to discover the railway track in the Thomas Cook Continental Times, although this was probably in a footnote, as the railway dated from the Austrian occupation in the 19th and 20th centuries (and could well have been a cause of war in 1914) and a steam engine pulled open wooden cars. To make the connection, I needed help.

I thought about taking a local bus from Užice to the end of the line in Priboj, but my hosts thought that was crazy and instead decided to take me to Vardište, which was a terminus of what was formerly the Bosnian Eastern Railway. They said they had friends near the city, where we could spend the night and the next day I could catch my train to Sarajevo.

Part of the reason I was so insistent on this particular line is that it was broadcast in Višegrad, where Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andrić set his classic novel. The bridge over 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 towards the end of the book, with the start of the Great War in 1914 and the Austrian invasion, the bridge collapsed into the river (just like Bosnia’s ethnic tolerance).

Narrow road to Sarajevo

I don’t remember today how I spent the day on the train, but I do remember that for much of the journey the train passed through thick, hilly forests along the Drina River. I also remember the arched spans of the medieval bridge, a fine example of Ottoman architecture, and how I spent a lot of time on the journey with my neck craned out the open window, so as not to miss any detail of the journey. Later, when Bosnia and Herzegovina was engulfed in the wars of Yugoslav succession, I thought a lot about my ride on the narrow gauge train, when some of the worst fighting and ethnic cleansing was taking place in eastern Bosnia.

I remember very well the moment when the train made its way through the narrow Sarajevo valley. I was shocked to see so many minarets on the city’s rooftops. From my reading, I should have known that Sarajevo was a Muslim city, but since Belgrade and that part of Yugoslavia were devoid of religious symbols, I did not expect to enter a city that looked more like Damascus than like Dubrovnik.

I got off the train in Bistrik, a suburb of Sarajevo, and walked to my hotel, which was in the main part of the small town. There, I spent several days “tracing” the origins of the First World War. Where the assassin Gavrilo Princip stood to kill the Archduke of Austria, footprints were etched into the concrete sidewalk. Some of the other assassins had thrown themselves into the Miljacka River (which runs through central Sarajevo), but in 1976, in heterogeneous Yugoslavia, the early days of the Great War were mere footnotes in a abstract and bygone past. All that mattered in Bosnia was what could happen to Yugoslavia after the passage of Marshal Tito. Tito died in 1980, but it took another eleven years for Yugoslavia to disintegrate along its ethnic divisions – the same fault lines that still threaten Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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

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