Warhorses that saved besieged city's life

A dozen steam locomotives kept Tuzla from freezing to death through Bosnia's brutal winters of conflict, reports Emma Daly

The roar of the furnace, the wind in your hair, the charm of a gentle chug - it is the first inkling of the joy that steam trains inspire in the enthusiastic amateur. And these particular engines are life-savers, old-fashioned old faithfuls that kept a city going through siege and snow and misery.

But we are in the Balkans, where nothing is as you expect, so of course the drivers who spend their days in the oily cabs once used by Hitler's army are longing for the modern convenience of diesel locomotives. "I've driven these engines for 20 years and it's very hard and dirty work," said Ibrahim Klincevic, chief driver at the dilapidated and weed-infested railway sidings of the Kreka coal mine in Tuzla, northern Bosnia.

"Can we have a diesel engine as a present?" Mato Markelic asked hopefully. "It could be small, it doesn't need to be big," Mr Klincevic added.

Trains have played a bizarre role in the Bosnian war: there has been more than one attempt to turn a train into a lethal weapon, packed with explosives and rolled towards an enemy town. A couple of branch lines were kept open by miraculous means, and one train was towed by a lorry, but most of the network was unusable, littered with mines, bridges blown.

But Tuzla was lucky, and the men do not underplay the work done by the steam trains. The city, its population swollen by 250,000 refugees, was under siege and in despair for much of the war, short of food, water and fuel. Without the locomotives hauling coal from the mines to the city's huge, hideous power station, to generate electricity for almost a million people, Tuzla would have frozen to death and its factories and hospitals would have shut down.

"These steam trains should be given medals," Mustafa Saracevic, resident steam buff at the Kreka mine, said. "How could we have lived without electricity throughout the war?" As the war progressed, the elderly engines started to stumble for want of vital spare parts, and Mr Saracevic issued an emergency appeal to the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) on the grounds that the British love steam trains and might help. Mike Bristow at the ODA came to the rescue, with pounds 22,000 worth of grease, oil and white metal, and got the trains back on track. "That was the only method of getting coal from the mines to the power station," Mr Bristow said.

Tuzla was not heavily shelled for most of the war, but it was virtually cut off, particularly during 1993, when the Muslim-Croat war in central Bosnia was at its peak.

The populace was entirely dependent on humanitarian aid, but the food lorries were forced to run a dangerous gauntlet of big guns along a route known to foreigners as "bomb alley", and supplies were erratic. "The convoys would be coming tomorrow and then just not appear," Mr Bristow said.

In the brutal Bosnian winter heating is vital, and many residents were dependent on the centralised heating system that ran water warmed by the power station through the city's grim apartment blocks.

The steam engines also carried passengers, most of them workers, between Tuzla and small towns nearby - no ticket required. "During the war there was no other way to travel," said Zaim Mostarlic, a machine operator charged with patching up the engines in a small, grimy workshop. There are tales, too, of televisions and other big-city consumer goods shipped to the front-line villages to be bartered for potatoes and other basics.

Eight of the locomotives are German series 33 engines built by Krupp in the early Forties and used by Hitler on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. The other four are series 62, based on a French design and built in the Fifties in Slavonski Brod, a Yugoslav town that now stands on Croatia's border with Bosnia-Herzegovina. And despite the drivers' complaints, the beasts will be around for a while - the men are repainting the engines red and green, with red and white wheels and a golden lily, the symbol of Bosnia.

"I loved steam engines when I was a kid, but it's a great feeling when you drive a new engine," Mr Klincevic said as the engine bumped and ground to a halt with a hiss of steam. "It's like a new car - you know, Mercedes versus Trabant."

Mr Saracevic refused an offer for the trains from an Austrian museum before the war, and may do so again. "Now that the war is over we are probably going to have to substitute diesels for them soon," he said.

"We will preserve these and wait for the next war. That is the law here. We have them quite often."

This is the latest in our Railways summer series

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths surrounding the enigmatic singer
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn