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Issue 16 July-October 1996
Adriatic Light at the End of the Sarajevo Tunnel

The Tunnel

The decision to dig a tunnel underneath the Sarajevo airport runway was taken at the highest state level in the spring of 1993. The task of building "Objekt BD" - a tunnel linking Butmir with Dobrinja - was assigned to the First Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the order to the relevant units was signed by deputy commander General Ratid Zorlak. Work began in the greatest secrecy on 1 March 1993, with the digging being done manually from both ends..

Due to the urgency of the task, full costings and technical specifications were never made, just the most essential drawings: the horizontal profile, and vertical and horizontal crosssections. Simplified plans were made for the electrical installations, a rail track, an oil pipe, and the access routes. According to Major Mustafa Becirevic, in charge of the First Corps construction section: "Everything was done in the greatest hurry. The situation on the front demanded the urgent establishment of more secure means both of supplying the army units in Sarajevo, and of communicating with the free territories. The work was initiated by Civil Defence units, but because of the specificity and difficulty of the job they were charged only with digging the access routes. Most of the work was done by soldiers of the AB-H: in the first instance, by the then Fourth and Fifth motorized brigades".

The project envisaged digging 160 metres of covered access trenches on the "D" side, 340 metres of the actual tunnel under the runway, and 340 metres of covered trenches on the "B" side. The digging was done from both ends, and when the work was completed it was established that the total length of the tunnel was 793 metres. On the Dobrinja side, the average height of the tunnel was 1.6 metres (not including the iron reinforcements), with an average width of 0.8 metres for the top half and 1 metre for the bottom. This section also contained the deepest and most difficult stretch - the 30-metre-long "reduced-level entrance". This is the section that Sarajevo citizens remember best, since so many of them bloodied their heads hitting its iron reinforcements. On the Butmir side, the tunnel was somewhat higher: the average height (not including the wooden reinforcements) was 1.8 metres, while the width remained the same. The tunnel was permanently lit; there were pumps for pumping the underground waters that at times reached up to waist level; there was a simple rail track, and an oil pipe.

The works lasted from 1 March to 1 July 1993. The biggest problem was how to hide 1, 200 cubic metres of earth dug out of the tunnel. The Dobrinja side also had the problem of where to find the wooden planks for reinforcement - so the fence around the "Trgosirovina" depot was dismantled. "Dalekovodi" provided the iron reinforcements. The tunnel works were financed by the state, the Army and the city of Sarajevo. During the night of 30-31 July - when the tunnel was finally completed, but before the reinforcements had been put in - elite units of the Bosnian Army rushed through to stop the Chetnik offensive on Mount Igman. Bjelasnica and Proskok fell on the following day.

Nedzad Brankovic, a Visegrad-born graduate of the Sarajevo faculty of civil enigineeeing, drew up the plans. When the war started he was building bridges on the Tuzla-Zvornik railway line. After seeing battle in the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, he was appointed to head a logistics team attached to the General Staff. A few months after the tunnel was completed, Brankovic was appointed Director-General of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Railways. He recalls drawing up the plans for the tunnel by candlelight. It was difficult at first, because not only did they lack the necessary skilled manpower, tools and materials, but to begin with they also had to persuade people that the project was viable. The work was highly dangerous. The builders of the tunnel had to work right on the front line. Despite all the difficulties, however, the tunnel was completed within four months, thanks to the supreme efforts made by the young diggers. The last few days were especially dramatic: Grebek, Rogoj and Trnovo fell, and Bosnian soldiers had to run across the airport runway in order to reach the front line. At the same time, moreover, negotiations were taking place in Geneva, whence came persistent calls asking whether the tunnel was finished. During the four days that the tunnel was late Brankovic, who does not smoke, became a chain-smoker. "You were waiting for those last five or six metres, you could hear them digging on the other side, but they just wouldn't come through".

Once built, the tunnel became Bosnia's busiest traffic artery. Thousands of soldiers and civilians passed through it daily, from "ordinary mortals" to members of the state presidency, generals, ministers, diplomatic personnel. The Chetniks focused their fire on the entrance and exit, where at times several thousand people would be waiting to pass through. War mat‚riel, food, cigarettes, all passed through the tunnel. Butmir, Kolonija and Hrasnica became a black-market Eldorado. In Sarajevo, food prices dropped and its citizens tasted meat again. The tunnel soon became a bottleneck, so plans were drawn up for a new tunnel to be built. Brankovic recalls the popular suspicion that the government was more interested in building tunnels than in lifting the siege of the city. But in his view it was vital to have communications no one could block.

The Railway

The Sarajevo-Mostar-Ploce railway line was reopened exactly three years after completion of the tunnel, on 30 July 1996. Germany donated money for building two bridges; and the "Resolution 900" people were persuaded that if they were to normalize life in Sarajevo, the city had to be connected to the Adriatic coast. Money was slow in coming, but the operation carried on. When work started on rebuilding the rail track, the suburbs of Sarajevo were still in the hands of the "Republika Srpska" forces. And there were no locomotives. The railway workers in Rajlovac, working without electricity - without telephones or warm meals - managed to rebuild four engines literally with their bare hands. The locomotive that finally pulled the train to Mostar was first started up less than a week before the departure. The paint for it was donated. At first, the train was supposed to go only as far as Mostar. But at the last minute permission came to go all the way to the Coatian port of Ploce. So far it has been a purely symbolic journey, but it is the harbinger of a revived Bosnian railway communication system.

Bosnia-Herzegovina's railway stock has been considerably enlarged by a gift from Germany, consisting of 25 diesel locomotives and a load of equipment for track maintenance. Slovenia has donated another nine diesel locomotives, and with Croatia an agreement has been concluded that is profitable to both sides. According to Nedzad Brankovic, what the railways now need is for the state to legislate for the security and financing of their network throughout the country.

This is a story of Adriatic light at the end of the Bosnian tunnel.

(From reports, and an interview with Nednad Brankovic, director of "Bosnia-Herzegovina Railways", in Ljiljan, Sarajevo, 7-14 August 1996)

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