First train to Serbia keeps Balkan peace on track

The first trains in six years started rolling between Serbia and Croatia yesterday. Marcus Tanner says this marks a milestone in the slow reconciliation between the two former Yugoslav republics that went to war in 1991.

In the days of Josip Tito, Yugoslavia's Communist leader for 35 years, the Belgrade-Zagreb railway was one of the busiest lines in Europe.

Built under the Habsburg dynasty to bind their sprawling and restless Slav domains with Budapest and the great imperial metropolis of Vienna, the railway under Tito evolved into one of the great thoroughfares of the continent, ferrying travellers between the old Yugoslav (and Serbian) capital of Belgrade to the Croatian capital, Zagreb, in luxury express trains in less than four hours, as well as transporting passengers from Italy and Germany and northern Europe towards Greece, Turkey and beyond.

When the line closed in the summer of 1991 amid heavy fighting around the city of Vukovar in Croatia, it was a sure sign that the fierce quarrel between Serbia and Croatia over the direction post-Tito Yugoslavia should take was tumbling towards an all-out war.

Yesterday's reopening was a more humble affair - a mere three carriages trundled the few miles from Vinkovci in eastern Croatia to Sid, on Serbia's western border. The train was expected to make the return journey after a brief ceremony hosted by Serb, Croat and UN officials.

The event was historic, none the less. Since war broke out between the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army and the forces of the breakaway Croatian republic, Serbs and Croats have lived almost hermetically sealed off from one another.

The road border between the two states was, until recently, closed to all except UN peacekeepers patrolling the war-devastated and disputed, Serb-occupied stretch of eastern Slavonia. In Croatia, motorway signs that pointed to destinations in Serbia were taken down or painted over.

Buses and rail passengers wishing to reach one another's capital cities were forced to take vast detours through southern Hungary and even Austria. Telephone lines were similarly cut.

The slow resumption of ties and rail and land traffic, is, in a sense, an admission of defeat by the Serbs. It suggests they recognise the border between Serbia and Croatia is fixed and final and have given up any hope of annexing the Serb-populated Krajina region. After Croatia reconquered Krajina with relative ease in August 1995, those hopes were dashed, and the two eventually recognised each other in 1996.

Trains connecting Zagreb with Belgrade are expected to be restored by 1998. "Step by step, and we'll have again a four-hour journey to Belgrade," said Veljko, 33, whose private firm is working on restoring business ties with companies in Belgrade. "With passports in pockets this time," he said. "But that's life."

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