Breakfast in Bosnia
After the Second World War Jon Miller found inspiration with an international brigade
building the Youth Railway near Sarajevo. He wonders what went wrong.

The 'democratic peoples of England' bounce on Greek shoulders near Sarajevo.

Shortly after being demobilized in 1946 I went to a meeting held by the British Yugoslav Association in London. I was fascinated by the story of reconstruction in that country. A ‘Youth Railway’ was to be built somewhere in Bosnia the next summer and a British Brigade was being organized to take part.

Everything seemed so cut and dried in those days. The old world of capitalism was rightly crumbling. At long last humanity had taken the great step forward to a future of peace and international goodwill. I thought it sounded like a great idea that comradeship could be harnessed for peace instead of war, and I joined.

It was a great idea. In fact I still look upon my time working on that railway as being one of the most inspiring of my life. Croats and Serbs, Jews and Arabs, all worked together in harmony. Anyone who at that time had given an accurate account of Bosnia today would probably have been certified insane.

After a gruelling three-day journey by train we arrived at our destination, the little village of Nemila. The station had been lit by bright portable lamps to greet us. We were packed into the back of a lorry and finally stopped in a small, mud-covered square surrounded by wooden huts. After a snack of bread and plum jam washed down with milkless tea – the usual short-notice Bosnian meal and the invariable breakfast – we were shown into one of the huts for the rest of the night.

The next morning we prepared to leave for Nemila camp, a quarter of an hour’s walk away. We marched off, Union Jack unfurled, not entirely in step but bravely singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, along the banks of the Bosna river. What happened next took us completely by surprise. The strains of ‘Tipperary’ were hopelessly lost in the robust singing of a column of men and women, dressed in light-blue dungarees, marching towards us with the Greek flag at their head. The next moment we found ourselves sitting on broad Greek shoulders, being bounced up and down to thunderous cries of ‘Long live the democratic peoples of England!’ and ‘Down with Anglo-American imperialism!’. In this manner we entered Nemila camp.

The whole International Brigade had gathered to greet us. From a wooden platform, decorated with the flags of all the nationalities present, we were welcomed by the camp commandant, 24-year-old Luke Banovic. Speakers welcomed us from the Swedish, Danish, Australian, Greek, Palestinian and Triestrian brigades. After what seemed an eternity the meeting broke up, though even then the Greeks seemed reluctant to put us down.

We were billeted with the Australians and Palestinians – who included both Arabs and Jews. On the wall of the hut was painted ‘Long live Arab-Jewish Anti-Imperialist Unity!’. Here on Yugoslav soil the Arab-Jewish problem appeared to be solved.

Eventually, four days later, we went into action. After breakfast of tea, bread and plum jam, we fell in and marched off to work at six in the morning. We sang as we marched, of course, but never managed to compete successfully with the other brigades. We worked near the entrance to the mile-long Vranduk tunnel. Our job was to clear away rock from the bottom of a cliff that was being blasted by paid professionals. We filled tip-up trucks with rock and pushed them some 200 metres down the line where the rock helped to build up an embankment. Both sexes worked together on the line. I’d never seen anyone work as hard as the Yugoslav women on their Youth Railway, and for that matter I don’t think I ever have since. At the end of a day when they’d done about twice as much as any of us they’d still have the energy to sing and do their national dances around the camp fires.

When not working hard physically we engaged in argument and discussion. Although some of the differences of opinion were extreme – in our group we had Young Conservatives as well as Young Communists – I never saw any bad feeling as a result. Everyone seemed to feel genuinely united in a common cause, and that is something you seldom come across outside of actual war. More’s the pity.

So what’s gone wrong in Bosnia? I think there was a lesson for us all in the building of the Yugoslav Youth Railway. A lesson as yet unlearned.

Jon Miller is now retired from a career making television programmes for children in South Africa, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand as well as Britain.

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