Train Line Across the Balkans Restitches a Region--NY Times
By NICHOLAS KULISH
Published: January 10, 2010
SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — The siege of Sarajevo had just begun the last time Vera Bagur, now 68, took the famous train line from Sarajevo to Belgrade. It was one of the few physical links that bound Muslims, Serbs and Croats.
Lala Tomljanovic and Vera Bagur, both 68, who share an apartment in Sarajevo, rode the train from Sarajevo to Belgrade for the first time in 18 years. More Photos
That unity was cracking into violence as she peered, against the conductor’s orders, out the window as tanks rolled past in the dry, unpicked cornfields.
“That was the time I realized it was going to be serious,” she said.
Now, after 18 years, the line is running again, one small reason the mood of Ms. Bagur, once again traveling from Sarajevo to Belgrade, was more, if not entirely, hopeful.
“I think we’re going to overcome this,” Ms. Bagur said.
For the chain-smoking Serbs, Croats and Bosnians toasting one another in the cafe car, the revived passenger line was certainly a sign that their forced isolation from the rest of Europe and the world beyond could be on the verge of ending.
Starting on Dec. 19, citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia could travel to European Union countries without visas for the first time since the collapse of Yugoslavia. Serbia, until recently an international pariah, applied for European Union membership a few days later. Reacceptance into the Western fold looks closer for the region than it has in years. But the region — like the train line itself — is by no means normal or fully integrated. In the fragmented territory of the former Yugoslavia, the train journey now requires four different locomotives from four separate railway companies, two passport checks and more than eight hours to journey about 300 miles.
That fragmentation plays out politically: the unresolved issue of gaining worldwide recognition of Kosovo’s independence remains both an impediment and a source of agitation, while the rise of nationalism ahead of this fall’s general election in Bosnia and Herzegovina has meant increasing divisiveness and even fear of renewed violence here.
“What is of the most concern for me is that for the first time in years, this political tension seems to be influencing and affecting the general public,” said Srecko Latal, an analyst on Bosnia and Herzegovina with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent deadly conflicts. “It’s a good thing that this choo-choo train is running between Sarajevo and Belgrade again, but I’m not sure very many passengers will be on it until the issues in the Balkans are resolved.”
But travelers flocked to the train last week to visit friends and relatives over the Orthodox Christmas holiday, and hope was high as the journey began at the Sarajevo train station, which was repaired after being badly damaged during the war. Rajko Zeljaja, 56, a telecommunications engineer and Orthodox Serb who is married to a Roman Catholic, took the bus from his home in Mostar to begin his journey.
“I celebrated one Christmas in Mostar,” Mr. Zeljaja said. “Now I go to my mother in Serbia to celebrate another Christmas. They can change locomotives all they want, but I guess they can’t change us.”
The station agent did not accept credit cards and wrote out each ticket by hand. A round-trip ticket to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, cost around $45, a bargain compared with a plane ticket, which often costs six times as much.
The train hugged riverbanks as flocks of ducks bobbed in icy, green water for much of the early part of the journey, stopping at small stations still prominently displaying the red star of Communist times. It chugged past houses with snowy rooftops or, telling for a country still recovering from war, gutted houses with no roofs at all.
Practically the entire railway network in Bosnia was rendered unusable during the war, which raged from 1992 to 1995. The war damaged tracks and facilities, but the nearly 10 miles of railway bridges were the most difficult to replace, said Narcis Dzumhur, general manager of the railway company in Sarajevo. His father worked for the railroad, and Mr. Dzumhur himself began in 1967 and was manager of the Sarajevo train station during the Winter Olympics in 1984.
Sasa Mehmedagic, 21, boarded the train with two friends, at the town of Doboj, during the first engine change after the train passed the boundary within Bosnia between the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic. The town suffered through both ethnic killings and military clashes during the war, and Mr. Mehmedagic lived as a refugee in Sweden for more than two years before returning home.
“I think young people realize that nationalism and racism are wrong because we are all from the same flesh,” Mr. Mehmedagic said. “I am half-Muslim and half-Serb and I’m proud of it.” The three young men said they no longer wanted to be defined along ethnic or religious lines but viewed themselves simply as Bosnians. They believed that their people were ready to move beyond the ethnic divisions that led their parents’ generation to war, they said, if their leaders stopped agitating for political gain.
More than anything, they said, they want economic opportunities and the freedom to travel. “We are like in a prison,” said Predrag Bozanovic, 20, one of Mr. Mehmedagic’s best friends even though his father was killed fighting on the Bosnian Serb side during the war. Mr. Bozanovic said that during Yugoslav times his mother could travel to Trieste, Italy, on a whim just to buy bluejeans, while he and his friends had the most contact with the outside world through an online science-fiction game.
Older passengers recalled the party atmosphere aboard the upscale Olympic Express during the successful Winter Games in Sarajevo. But the new train is hardly luxurious, with mismatched rail cars belonging to three different railway companies. (Croatia provided a locomotive through its territory, but not yet a passenger car.) Smoking is allowed in the Serbian-operated cafe car in Bosnia and Serbia, but not during the middle part of the trip through Croatian territory.
Technical and economic problems were harder to overcome than political divisions, said Slobodan Rosic, director of the Serbian Railways Directorate, but in the last two years there were intensive negotiations and discussions among the parties to get the trains moving again, even though they were not expected to be profitable right away. “Psychologically, this is a very good thing,” Mr. Rosic said.
The mood aboard the train reflected that sentiment. Zeljko Bilanovic, 59, described fond memories of the train before the war, of drinking and singing songs in the restaurant car, forming friendships and watching people fall in love. Mr. Bilanovic, an economist and publisher, followed his wife and three children to Paris from Sarajevo in 1993, where he became a house painter as a refugee.
Back in Sarajevo for a visit, he and his wife decided to go to Belgrade as well, and they called the resumption of service a good sign in a time of stalemate and even setbacks. “It’s the train called hope,” Mr. Bilanovic said.