Train may take the strain of aid effort to Tuzla: Railway may speed help to town

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The Independent Online
THERE is a legend in the former Yugoslavia that war follows the railway from Belgrade to Tuzla. Every time workers started on the route, a world war broke out. Its completion was marked by the Bosnian conflict. Now one of the most ill-fated stretches of track in the history of rail travel could be a more important lifeline for the beleaguered people of Tuzla than their airport.

Work on the commercial rail link connecting the Serbian capital with the then Habsburg-ruled city of Tuzla started in 1914, but the effort was halted by the outbreak of the First World War. Navvies only resumed laying track in 1940, almost exactly one year before Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia. It took another 50 odd years before the 46kms of track between Zvornik and Tuzla were completed.

The first train from Belgrade pulled into Tuzla on 18 January 1992. Less than a week later, the tracks were mined, making the railway an early victim of the growing tensions between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. The railway's reputation as a divining rod for misery was reaffirmed soon after: full-scale war in Bosnia broke out on 9 April.

'The myth that war follows this railway is not too far from the truth,' a correspondent for the Belgrade daily Borba wrote just before the fighting started.

Now, at a time of growing international pressure to reopen the Serbian-besieged Tuzla airport for aid deliveries, there is a little-known plan to reverse the railway's reputation. According to United Nations officials, the vital rail connection could meet all of the region's aid needs better than any airlift ever could.

'Railways are the most effective way to move goods and offer the greatest transport capacity for humanitarian aid,' said Lyndall Sachs, a spokeswomen for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The International Management Group-Infrastructure Bosnia-Herzegovina (IMG), a UN consultant, has made a study of Bosnia's rail network with an eye to repairing it to boost aid deliveries. While many parts of the network have been damamged by war, others are nearly perfect.

According to Sten Stoa of the IMG, the Belgrade-Tuzla line is among the latter. 'The Belgrade-Tuzla line could be up and running in a very short time if the political will was there,' Mr Stoa said. 'Almost all of Bosnia's leaders want a train service in their areas, but are concerned about rail links across ethnic lines.'

Until now the Serbs have refused to talk about rail links with Muslim-held areas. But there is a feeling at IMG that considering the political climate in Bosnia - a Muslim- Croat rapprochement, and ceasefires in Sarajevo and Bosnia - it may be time to put the railways back on the agenda. Working groups are planned.

Meanwhile, attention is still focused on the Tuzla airport. The United Nations has long pressed for an airlift to Tuzla to reach hundreds of thousands of displaced people in central and north-east Bosnia who have been cut off from overland convoys because of factional fighting.

Earlier this week, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, agreed to reopen the airport with Russian troops as monitors to prevent the airport from being used as conduit for arms deliveries. But the UN special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, said yesterday that the Serbian agreement was not good enough to start mercy flights. 'The Bosnian government side has not agreed to this arrangement,' he said.

But getting aircraft for a central Bosnia airlift is not just a matter of snapping fingers. 'Even if the security issue is solved there are a number of other problems to be addressed,' said Tony Land of the UNHCR in Sarajevo. 'We would need more aircraft and more departure airports.'

Like Tuzla airport, the Belgrade-Tuzla railway would provide relief officials with a more direct route into the centre of Bosnia. Unlike the airport, the railway starts in the Serbian capital, a fact which could assuage Serbian fears that freight bound for Muslim areas was full of weapons.

Rail, however, is not a perfect answer either. Trains, like the truck convoys, are relatively easy for local warlords to stop and are also very tempting targets for looters. Any plan to open the railway needs, like everything else in Bosnia, political agreement.

(Map omitted)