River halts U.S. force in Bosnia Most of the 20,000 await pontoon bridge, and the Sava is rising

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ZUPANJA, Croatia -- What's more than 300 yards wide and so dirty that dead tree limbs and dead cows appear to share a right of way with a rusty old ferry?

The Sava River.

The murky body of water that divides Croatia from Bosnia-Herzegovina is the biggest obstacle the U.S. Army faces in cranking up its peacekeeping mission. To get its arsenal of M-1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles into Bosnia, the Army has to build a pontoon bridge across the river.

The bridge is the key point in the deployment. Only about 1,300 U.S. troops have made it into Bosnia, most of those by air. The bulk of the 20,000 Americans joining other NATO peacekeepers must cross the Sava. U.S. Army spokesmen say the deployment is not behind schedule, although weeks ago the military was predicting that the bridge would be built by now.

Military engineers say the pontoon bridge could be ready by the end of this week at the earliest.

For days now, the construction project has been the best entertainment in town, as U.S. engineers smooth the muddy terrain with backhoes and tractors.

But there could be a slight hitch in the U.S. military's construction plans. The first winter snow has melted. The river is rising.

The U.S. Army was aware it was building the bridge in a flood plain, since there is a dike and river gauge on the northern Croatian side. The river rose five feet between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but is not high enough to hamper construction.

Still, no one predicted that on Christmas Day Bosnia would be as balmy as May. The river was supposed to rise in the spring, not in the first days of winter.

"The Army is not stupid. But no one asked if it was possible to do anything here. They just arrived," says Ilija Janic, who works aboard the Marjan ferry, the only link between the two banks since the Croatians blew up the bridge four years ago trying to halt Serbian advances.

When war broke out in Bosnia a year later, no one ever bothered to rebuild the bridge since the Sava became a front line.

The only way to get from this point to Tuzla, the headquarters of U.S. forces in Bosnia, was a three-day detour. Once the bridge is up, the trip from the crossing to the headquarters 50 miles south will be a two-hour drive on open road.

Yesterday, the route through Bosnia was opened to the public for the first time. But the only takers were NATO and the news media, as civilians continue to wait and see if the peace holds. Few are prepared to pass through three military lines and a border after a bloody war.

Unthinkable journey

Still, it was unusual to travel through Serbian-held areas of Bosnia and see Serbian soldiers sitting outside their bunkers, waving. Only in September, the area was the site of heavy fighting. And even two weeks ago, the journey would have been unthinkable for anyone except armed forces.

The civilians stuck to the river banks. Hundreds of locals wandered up the ramps of the blown-up old bridge to watch the Americans in action. On the Bosnian side, someone had even drawn an American phrase on the pavement, "Dazed and Confused."

The civilians saw a team of Navy SEALS don wet suits and snorkels to brave the dirty water and survey the river bed.

They watched helicopters come and go as Adm. Leighton Smith, leader of NATO's Southern Command, and Gen. Maj. William Nash, commander of U.S. forces in Bosnia, showed up for a Christmas Day visit with the troops.

Even though they won't be able to use the new bridge immediately, the Bosnians are hopeful that they will soon have a quick way to cross the river.

"The destruction of our old bridge was pointless," observed Darko Marsci, 19. "Our lives have totally changed without the bridge. We used to cross very easily. But now "

The free ferry can take a dozen cars across the river. But service is spotty at best. And the ferry can be held up by the garbage that floats downriver.

The U.S. Army soldiers have been trying to avoid the water, at all costs.

"We've been here three days, and not a whole lot is happening," says Army Specialist Jeremy Van Dyke, 20, of Salisbury, Md.

"I'm getting kind of bored."

Specialist Van Dyke drives a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. On Christmas Eve, he even took the 36-ton well-armed carrier aboard a military ferry for a quick ride across the river.

"I was thinking that we would sink the ferry," he says. "But we didn't. We went over to the other side and drove across a garbage pile."

Soon enough, Specialist Van Dyke and the other troops will be headed to Bosnia for a longer drive to their camps in Sector Tuzla, the U.S. peacekeeping zone.

For now, they're all stuck in the mud.

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