Nostalgic Serbs board the 8.15 to Sarajevo

After 18 years, rail link between the Serbian and Bosnian capitals reopens

The last time Husein Kratina boarded a train in Belgrade bound for his native Bosnia-Herzegovina was more than 18 years ago. That last trip was made as the wars leading to the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia tore his homeland apart in 1991.

In the icy cold of yesterday morning, the retired Belgrade university professor became one of the first passengers to climb aboard the Belgrade to Sarajevo express, a direct rail link between the two capitals which has only finally reopened after almost two decades of interruption.

Well in his eighties now, Mr Kratina was too excited to say a thing, but his Serbian wife Zora, 75, said she was delighted with the "unique opportunity" to travel with her husband to his native town of Zenica, close to Sarajevo.

"We waited for the right moment to go and this is it," said a beaming Mrs Kratina. "Maybe this is the last chance for us, but it has finally come."

It was nothing much to look at, a rather drab three-carriage train, which departed the Serb capital for the Bosnian capital at 8.15am on the dot, with only 17 passengers on board. Yet for many reasons, it represented more a symbolic re-establishment of ties between the two nations than a real breakthrough in relations between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Belgrade backed Bosnia's Serbs in the cruel conflict that took more than 100,000 lives. The Bosnian Serb army, under the command of the notorious fugitive from justice, Ratko Mladic, mercilessly shelled Sarajevo and kept it under siege from 1992 until 1996. The Bosnian capital lost 10,000 people in the war, more than under the German occupation in the Second World War.

Deep scars have been left in Bosnia and reconciliation has been slow, but there are still many people in Serbia who cherish the memory of pre-war life, frequent visits to Sarajevo and friends who still live there.

"I travelled to Sarajevo by train almost every weekend, as I had many friends there and I loved skiing," Belgrade woman Katarina Malbasic said. "But unlike now, the train had fancy carriages. And it took only five hours to reach Sarajevo."

Today, it takes more than eight hours to reach Sarajevo from Belgrade, as the train crosses two borders, Croatian and Bosnian, running along the old pre-war railway route of more than 500 kilometres.

Parts of the track were blown up or became front lines as an ethnic Serb rebellion cut Croatia in half, and ethnic Serbs, Croats and Muslims fought against each other in Bosnia.

The deep political suspicion among the leaderships of three nations hampered post-war re-connection of the ethnic populations.

Almost all communications were broken by the end of the last century. Telephone lines between Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo were totally cut, as well as postal services, and any form of transport, even air. These communication lines were re-established only after the downfall of Serb President Slobodan Milosevic.

But for many Serbs, such as Belgrade lawyer Branko Rogosic, Sarajevo holds only good memories.

"I served in the [Yugoslav] army in Sarajevo in 1987. I love Sarajevo," Mr Rogosic said as he boarded the train yesterday. "This is really a special event – to travel there again by train, to re-establish the communications. But the train does not look the same as before the war."

Apart from the dilapidated appearance of the carriages, the dining car is modestly furnished. The price could not be faulted however; traditional meals of the region, salads, sandwiches and coffee, are on sale for only one euro. The train ticket for the journey costs €31 (£28).

For the train's engineer Dusan Bosnjakovic, yesterday was a matter of fierce pride.

"I'm proud to take the first train to Sarajevo after so many years," he said. "It's good that links between people are being rebuilt again."

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