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
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The Independent Online
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