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Bridge over troubled water

By Cpl. Jean-Philippe Lavigne
First published in
SFOR Informerr#127, November 28, 2001

When the project began in the middle of September, there was nothing in Tomici but the Velika Usora (Great Usora) River dividing the village. Thanks to the efforts of the Turkish Civil-Military Co-operation (CIMIC) team and the local residents, Baris Kprs bridge (literally, "Bridge of Peace") was opened Nov. 23. The bridge will allow more than 70 Bosnian-Serb families to return to their pre-war homes. The first step to rebuild this local community has been made.

Tomici - Bridges have a special place in the heart of the Slavic people. They symbolise permanence and continuity under the contingencies of history. They serve as links between heaven and earth, links between those who would otherwise be separated by ethnicity, religion or race.
Returning home
But more, Baris Kprs will be vital in assisting displaced B-Serbs in returning to their pre-war homes in Podjezera, Tomici, and in Vidovici, Vjivorak and Toletinjac, located on the other side of the Velika Usora River in Teslic municipality. Mountains stand as sentries between these villages and each group tends to keep to itself. The region is mostly deep forest and abandoned habitations crumbling into dust. Some liveable houses are scattered in the valley along the snaky dirt road leading to the bridge. The deep snow accentuates the effect of a lifeless place. Most of the residents evacuated their homes during the war. There were approximately 185 houses in the area at that time. All inhabitants were B-Serbs. Today, 50 houses have been reconstructed (11 by HELP, 15 by Crossroads International and 24 by Mercy Corps). Some 80 houses are partially damaged and in need of repair as 120 families are expected to return, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Concerning Tomici, "250 people (58 families) have returned to their homes with their own efforts and about 70 families are expected to return as soon as the problems relating to the infrastructure problems will be solved," says Mile Vrekic, the mayor of the village. "The bridge will allow people to rebuild houses on the both sides of the river and will give them freedom of movement."
Deep in the mountains
Many B-Serb families are presently living as Displaced Persons (DP) in Ruzevic, Stenjak, Gomjenica, Barici and other hamlets of Teslic. Few of them have returned to Vidovici were HELP has some reconstruction projects but the area is very poor. People are mostly living on land, farming since the coal mine in Blatnica was closed. The villages were supplied with water through individual wells before the war but the water system is damaged. Vrekic Stanko has been living on the Bank of the Velika Usora in Tomici for 66 years. A former forester, he is now retired and earns a monthly pension of 80 KM. For his family he has water and electricity, which are considered a luxuries in the village. Stanko confirms that everyday life is not easy in this place. He lost three goats in a mine accident and the river seriously damaged his house. Eventually, Turkish Battalion came to help by diverting the river away from his home. "In winter and spring the river can flow very quickly and becomes impossible to cross," explains Turkish 1st Lt. Besim Zengin.
Starting a new life
The opening of Baris Kprs was a great event in the village. People appeared from all over the valley and gathered around the bridge, despite the continuous snow. The mayor of Teslic, Gavro Auvaric, was there in support and Stanko Vrekic had prepared some Sljivovica (plum alcohol) for the occasion. Without this bridge a part of Tomici was totally isolated. The village doesn't have sufficient infrastructure and is still dependent on Blatnica. All the children of the valley can now go the primary school of 1-8 grades. During the war four schools were destroyed in Jezera, Kozila, Podjezero and Jasenica. The nearest health care centre, where a doctor comes twice a week, is located in Blatnica, along with a PTT office and an Orthodox church. Another church is under construction in Tomici, but the rebuilding in the village is at the beginning stages.
Once a family has made a decision to return and has re-established a permanent presence in their pre-war home, the next most important concern is to become economically sustainable. At times when the economic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is poor and a job is hard to find, projects aimed at creating job opportunities for returnees are an important in helping re-establish and stabilise local communities. For that reason, the project was entirely funded by the Turkish Brigade Humanitarian Fund, established in 1996 and consisting of volunteer donations from the Turkish soldiers over the past five years (see SFOR Informer no. 123). This fund has now reached an excess of 3.5 million KM. Some 45,000 KM has been necessary for the bridge, built as a community project between local residents and the Turkish engineers. Six soldiers worked continuously from Sept. 16 to Nov.16, under the direction of Zengin. "The time spent on the construction has reached 1,800 work hours," he says. "The work became more and more difficult as the winter was approaching."
As the inhabitants symbolically cross Peace Bridge under the snow, Maj. Sezai Bykdag, CIMIC commander, savours the moment, proud of his achievement. "I feel warm again, I'm not cold anymore," he says, and with a smile of satisfaction quotes Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic: "Peace at home, peace in the world."

Related links: CIMIC
Nations of SFOR: Turkey