Bridge Over The River Una

Discussion in 'Bosnia/Former Yugoslavia (Op GRAPPLE, Op RESOLUTE)' started by wedge35, Jan 16, 2012.

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  1. When I first set foot in the Former Yugoslavia, I had no idea what effect the next six months would have on the rest of my life. It was March 1998, I was 19 years old, as green as a leprechaun's nut-sack and, but for a short stint in the Falklands, this would be my very first experience of life on tour.

    OPTAG training in Sennelager had, as always, aimed to prepare us for the worst case scenario and because of this, the first glimpse of Croatia from the window of the RAF VC-10 came as a pleasant surprise. The wooded hills along the Dalmatian coast hugged the azure waters of the Adriatic and the early spring sunshine bathed the little white houses on the outskirts of Split with a cheerful glow; something of contrast to the vague and ignorant notions of snowbound Balkan desolation that I had ingested from news reports a few years before.

    We were processed into theatre at Divulje (DJ) Barracks before being packed into trucks for the long journey up-country. Through the border post at Kamensko, across the scrubby lowlands of Hercegovina and past the old halfway-house camp at Tomislavgrad. The ground rose as we progressed Northwards and the air became cooler until, almost without noticing, we were in a mountainous landscape, awesome in it's savage beauty. Snow still lay in patches along the road and capped the surrounding hills and mountains with white. Near our ultimate destination - the town of Gornji Vakuf - thin crusts of ice floated serenely down the slow waters of the Vrbas River.

    Our home for the next six months would be 'The Precision Factory', one of two NATO camps in Gornji Vakuf. The factory, which must have been coming apart at the seams long before the civil war, no longer hummed with industry but instead played host to a Field Squadron of Sappers and a Company of Infantry, along with the usual mixed bag of hangers-on, as well as a few NGO staff, looking like aliens from the Planet Zog. Banks of corimecs and portacabins surrounded the main factory building, with wooden pallet walkways laid out between them. Armoured Fighting Vehicles, DAF trucks and Landrovers stood in serried ranks in what had once been a delivery yard, the gate house had been fortified with sandbags, the occasional helicopter drifted overhead and around the perimeter were wound dannat coils of barbed wire, laced with trip-wires and flarepots.

    The war, of course, was over and had been for two and a half years. Compared to what the British army had been getting up to in Ulster a decade earlier, Bosnia '98 hardly counted as an operational tour at all, and would fade to nothing once the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq began a few years later. The threat to NATO was minimal, stonethrowing incidents and the (very) odd pot-shot being about the size of it. But far too much blood had flowed under the bridge far too recently for things to be anything like normal and there was just enough of a tang of tension in the air to keep things interesting. More than that, Engineer work often can't kick in until the guns have fallen silent and one look at the smashed buildings and mine-sewn fields was enough to see that this tour would involve far more than shining our arrses.

    Our biggest job of the tour was to take place far to the North-West, close to where Bosnia meets Croatia, in the small pocket of Federation territory that existed in uncomfortable proximity to the heartland of the Republika Srpska. The area had eviscerated itself during the war, being the scene of violence that was shocking in it's brutality, even for Bosnia. Few towns of any importance had existed there even before the war and now, with burnt-out villages by the score, the area resembled somewhere that a banshee might make her home, wreathed in mountain mist. The local population was overwhelmingly Bosniak (Muslim) but, here and there, small communities of Serbs held out, clinging by their fingertips to the land their ancestors had settled centuries before.

    The existence of these last remnants of Serbdom was the very reason for us being in the area. A road bridge over the River Una had once linked two Serb villages but had been destroyed early in the war and never rebuilt. Given that the banks of the river were steep and laced with mines, and that the two villages were completely surrounded by hostile Bosniak territory, only fit young men had been able to cross between the two, leaving the majority of people completely isolated. Our job, quite simply, was to rebuild the bridge.

    My Troop of 30 odd blokes spent the best part of a month living in tents not far from the site, clearing and preparing the ground before spanning the gap with a Mabey Johnson bridge, concreting in the abutments to ensure that structure would last. Local people would occasionally visit the site, carrying bottles of sliv or cans of Pepsi to shoot the breeze with the sentry on the far bank. One day, as I sat smoking with my rifle across my knees, a teenage boy walked up to me and introduced himself in surprisingly good English. We shared a cigarette and chatted a while, with him telling me how his Grandfather had been a Partizan during the Second World War and had known a British liaison officer in his Unit; a standard Grandad story to him, hopelessly exotic and romantic to me. He told me that if you listened closely enough at night, you could hear the utvara - the ghosts - in the woods close to our camp.

    We hadn't even finished decking the bridge when the people started to cross. They came from both sides - men, women and kids, from babes in arms to shuffling pensioners. Along the bridge and on both banks, people embraced and wiped away tears, old women kissed grandchildren they had never held and men shook our hands and uncorked bottles. I knew then, and I'm still sure, that if I lived to be a hundred, nothing would ever compare to this.

    We called the bridge 'Archibald Bridge', after a Sapper VC winner of the Great War. He had kept working on a floating bridge as artillery shells burst around him and even as the cloud of poison gas that would nearly end his life closed around him. And there had been a time, not so long before, when I had dreamed of doing the same - going to war and storming the barricades and all the rest of it. Earlier in the tour, I'd have even settled for a 'contact'. But things had changed, thanks to bridging the Una. We had given a besieged community a physical bridge and in return, they had given me a spiritual one. I started the tour as a child and ended it as a man.

    There was a time when I had felt jealous of former friends who had worked hard enough to complete their A-Levels. I had watched them troop off to university and often thought of them whilst being beasted around the parade square or assault course during basic training. Sometimes, back home, with me on leave and them on holiday, they would talk of volunteering abroad for a couple of weeks, or debate politics, or become excited about some triviality of pop culture. Then, I had felt like a chimney sweep amongst gentlemen. Then, but no longer.

    Many people - perhaps most - go through life without ever doing anything particularly out of the norm, for whom the height of emotion is a football result or the giving of a Christmas present. But to have been a NATO soldier in Bosnia and to have left a permanent structure in an unknown corner of the country, to have become part of the tiniest footnote in the history of a country that has seen countless outside armies ebb and flow over it, is something that has stayed with me up to now and will stay with me forever. Bosnia was an education - nowhere on Earth is better at shattering prejudices - and a privilege.

    Nowadays, like most people, I sit in an office and make little difference to anyone's life except my own. But once upon a time, I and thousands like me did something positive and good. And one day, I will sit on that abutment again with a cigarette and a bottle and maybe, if I listen closely enough, I'll hear the voices of the utvara from long ago.

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  2. Oh dear, someones been having a few beers. 98? pffff

    meh.....the ******* won't maintain the bridge and it will fall into disrepair.....if they haven't replaced it with a banana bridge.

  3. It's a Bailey bridge. With or without maintenance it will still be there for donkeys years unless they replace it.

    Nice bit of writing, Wedge.

    Some people go through life never experiencing catharsis and remain untouched by anything but the mundane.
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  4. Aye, but in Bosnia they can somehow turn a brand new building into something that is ancient and falling apart in less then a year. I suppose its a good country if you want to fake antiques. ;)

    When was that picture taken wedge?
  5. 2001 I think, mate. Taken by some TA driver and 'borrowed' by me...
  6. Next time I in Bosnia (start of April) I will take a wander over there to see if it is still there.
  7. Cheers. How long are you there for? Me and Rickshaw_Major will be having a few in Sarajevo around 23 April, if you're still knocking around.
  8. Cool, I should be there for about 4 weeks, mainly up in Banja hopefully meet up over a few Nektars.
  9. Excellent post Wedge, well done. Good to be reminded that all tours had risks.
  10. I remember crossing a similar bridge, on the MSR between Mrkonjik Grad and Sanski Most early in 1996. In an up-armoured Foden Recovery Veh (27 Ton) and towing a CVR(T) Samson (11 ton). As we shot accross the bridge there were suddenly shit loads of white faced wedgies, from 35 I think, apparently employed repairing the road bed with planks(non artillery type) all scurrying for their lives, some even jumping, all foaming at the mouth and generally making quite a fuss over a bridge we'd been using in an unrepaired state for many weeks. We didn't stop, as I didn't detect any tea and biscuits in their attitude, but in my rear view mirror I was able to read something which explained their excitable state.

    Top tip for those lemming like wedgies with the ruined underwear, if you intend to close a bridge to all traffic weighing over 8 Tons, you'll need two signs, one at each end!
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  11. Well, that story certainly trumps mine :)
  12. Seconded ...
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  13. Great post Wedge. I was there in winter '94 - Gornji Vakuf, Vitez and then Kiseljak. I remember flying into Split and thinking Croatia was like a big Mediterranean holiday resort and then we drove inland into Bosnia and it became more Germanic, reminding me of The Black Forest. I'll never forget the sight of a town which had been completely flattened by artillery fire and then a mortared graveyard outside of Visoko. I couldn't believe how people who had lived in the same villages all their lives could turn on their neighbours seemingly overnight.
  14. While I was out there the Septics decided to have a tidy up and pull in a Maby Johnston bridge they had decided they were not using. Cue the usual Septic round of intense planning, including defining "egg", "grandma" and "suck" before presenting same "for your guiadance sir" in a 250 slide powerpoint presentation to the 2 Star ....well, everything actually bar actually telling the locals what the plan was. They deployed an army of KBR logistic support, and infantry company as Security and a squillion engineers, spanners at the high port..... to be met by a delegation of Muslim farmers. Upshot was that...." the bridge had been installed by the Swedes, thanks very much, and they donated it to us when they left. Its ours, now kindly **** off back to Tuzla and leave us in peace." Similar bit of high-end diplomacy when they decided to move 2 Abrams over a partially completed bridge being built by the locals, this time in a Serb AOR - despite being told not to by the local council roads types. Result - waterproofing membranes within the bridge buggered, huge bill follows, new bridge delayed by months, US name even more Mud than normal. They never did learn that " Kako sta ?" with a hand oustretched was the most useful phrase......
  15. good read that was wedge. if its the bridge i,m thinking of, i drove a drops up into the mountains on a track to the left of it (1997)
    we had 2 wagons transporting iso containers for chogis building a climbing lodge.
    when we got there, not before nearly slipping off some fcuking dodgy tracks they put on a cracking fire and bbq, then gave us all there pivo and a couple of bottle of evil slivo. when we got back to kupres we got bat faced, good memories