On the rickety, smokey track to Sarajevo

December 14, 2009

By Ivana Sekularac  – Aboard the Belgrade-Sarajevo train

trainJust after 8 a.m. on Sunday, I was one of two dozen journalists at Belgrade’s central station to board the first train to Sarajevo for 18 years, since the wars in Bosnia and Croatia slashed
through the fabric of what used to be my country.

I am a bit of an anomaly, a Serb who moved to Sarajevo for a time in 1998 after the war ended and as Bosnia was trying to get back on its feet.

Bogdan, the waiter in the restaurant car, is excited about my background and the exclusive insights he thinks I must have.    “Tell me about Sarajevo,” he asks. “I haven’t been there in 20 years. Are many of the women veiled? What are the shopping hours? And do they allow smoking in restaurants?”

I reassure  him that no, Sarajevo is not full of Muslim fundamentalists as some Serbian nationalists say, and the stores are open normally as Bosnians of all ethnicities have a flair for trade.

The all-important issue of smoking, a habit deeply ingrained in the region, illustrates the Balkanisation of a train route that goes through three states once united in Yugoslavia. The first carriage belongs to the Bosnian Serb railway, the restaurant belongs to Serbia, and the third carriage to the rail  company of Bosnia’s other half, the Muslim-Croat federation.

Smoking in the restaurant is allowed when the train is in Serbia and in Bosnia, but forbidden when it goes though Croatia, which has tightened its legislation as part of its efforts to join the European Union in 2012.

If the distance from accession is measurable in the thickness of the smoke in the atmosphere, Serbia and Bosnia are still smoke-years away from EU membership.

As people rush to stub out cigarettes, then light up again, the locomotives change along with the flags on the border crossings. When my colleagues’ cameras start to roll, Bogdan gets nervous, takes a small vase with fake flowers and smoothes down the worn red table cloth to make it more presentable.

The train sweeps through Croatia, and then slows down in Bosnia and Serbia due to rickety tracks. Parts of it were blown up or became front lines during 1990 wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

The money that is not invested in modernising the railways is clearly going on reinforcing the ethnic and religious divide that has kept this region squabbling and lagging for so long. New church and mosque building seems to be a major economic activity. In two villages in central Bosnia, I was surprised to see an Orthodox church with a bell tower five stories high.

“They want to make them higher than the minarets,” one passenger said.

Discussion of politics and religion dies as the trip drags on, nine hours now instead of the six before the war. Finally edging into the city, I find myself disoriented by arriving from a totally new direction, through suburbs I never saw when I was driving in and out of the city in the late 1990s.

The train station, one of Yugoslavia’s showcases for the 1984 Winter Olympics, is run down, not the impressive building I remembered when I last saw it, more than 20 years ago. I feel confused, as if I had landed in an totally unfamiliar city, and start to walk. My body recognises before my brain that  special Sarajevo mountain cold.

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A very refreshing piece. Do keep such unique articles coming. Cheers from India.

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