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July 3, 1999
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 17-Special
General Ojdanic's Pontoon Bridge Over the Morava River

Officially Open, Unofficially Working

by Zoran B. Nikolic

The turn from Jagodina leads down a road which is no longer open to traffic.  There are signs everywhere, "Obligatory direction", directing vehicles at the exit and the toll booth.  From there, the way to Cuprija goes down a byway.  On July 1, the Blic daily newspaper reported, quoting as its source the Automobile Association of Serbia, that the pontoon bridge over the Greater Morava River, near the village of Mijatovac, close to Jagodina, is not longer in use, and that it is not known when "work on fixing it" will be completed.  Blic wrote without quoting the source of this information that the overflowing Morava River had drowned out the pontoon bridge two days following its formal opening.  There were no victims, Blic wrote, but one truck did end up in the Morava River.

When we asked at the toll booth how we can get to the bridge near Mijatovac, the young man working there answered curtly   "on foot."  And what about the pontoon bridge?  "That was only for TV cameras," he explained.  (When we went some fifty kilometers in the direction of Belgrade, across Veliko Orasje and Velika Plana, to visit the destroyed bridge over the river Jasenica, we asked an older policeman who was directing traffic whether the pontoon bridge over the Morava River is working.  His answer was: "Boys, the water took it down immediately.")

This bridge was officially opened on June 21 by Army General Dragoljub Ojdanic, Chief of the Supreme Headquarters of the Yugoslav Army.  After cutting the ribbon, General Ojdanic inspected the members of the engineering unit of the Corps of Kragujevac which built the bridge.  It was announced that the Belgrade-Nis highway will be reconstructed, and that the one heading from Nis to Belgrade will be up an running in three to four months.  Temporary bridges were erected in one day's time, with one day of preparations.  The official opening of those bridges was attended by Nikola Sainovic, Vice- President of Federal Government, Dejan Kovacevic, Construction Minister in the Parliament of Serbia, and Milutin Mrkonjic, Director of CIP.

ANGRY WITH JOURNALISTS: All the same, we did not go on foot.  We drove through Jagodina, and went toward Cuprija.  Soon we turned toward the village of Mijatovac.  A quiet, whitewashed village.  We went onto a macadam road and between trees and bushes the Morava River soon presented itself, with a bunch of crumpled concrete beside it and in it.  Those are the remains of the bridge which is part of the Belgrade-Nis Highway which was destroyed by the NATO air force on May 8 at 12:45 p.m.  Four Rumanian journalists were injured at the time.  A group of Rumanian journalists followed a visiting delegation from the City of Pitestija which was staying in Kragujevac, a sister city, to which it brought humanitarian aid to the workers of Zastava.  The residents of Mijatovac say that one of the humanitarian vehicles fell into the Morava River at that time.
Behind the remains of the bridge loud noise could be heard.  On the other side of the concrete chaos is a huge bulldozer with a steamroller and trucks.  They are filling the shore of the Morava River with gravel and pressing it down.  We come across a soldier.  A youth in a bullet proof vest and an automatic machine gun, dressed according to regulation   obviously a guard.  Sweat is dripping from our brows withe the temperature well over thirty degrees Celsius.  We ask who we could talk to, and he is directing us toward the river: "Over there, everyone's there, even the Colonel."  We turn our heads and our eyes catch a bridge, a pontoon bridge   broad, long, with cars driving across it.
We get onto the bridge and approach a group of officers.  One of them, a short, older man is wearing the insignia of a colonel's rank, so we begin explaining to him what it is we want.  When he heard that we are journalists, a tall captain with a shining revolver in his belt jumped in: "So you'll write like the other ones..."  "Be quite!" the colonel commanded curtly.  Then he turned toward us and said that we could look and take photographs, but away from the soldiers and without taking any statements.  Our answer was "Yes sir!" after which we went our way.

After several minutes the Colonel's jeep stopped beside us.  By now relaxed, the Colonel spoke to us through the window: "We are very angry at all journalists.  But go to the Captain and he will explain to you why a pontoon bridge cannot be flooded over."

"Because it floats," the Captain explained to us when we restated the Colonel's question to him in a disciplined way.  In fact the Captain is a very cordial man.  He said: "Ask what you like, but I don't intend to give you my name.  I'm still keeping the article from 'Blic'   I'll never forget it.  Friends who know I'm built this called me.  I could not convince them that things are not the way they are stated in the article.  The bridge was not flooded over, it was not carried away by the river, nor did any truck fall from it."
The second bridge crossing the Great Morava River on the Highway heading in the direction toward Belgrade is still standing, even though NATO dropped four projectiles on in on May 14 at 13:30 hours.  There is a gaping hole in the middle of the highway with a diameter of about 10 feet, with a mangled bunch of reinforcing elements sticking out.  A pontoon bridge is connected with metal cables to the still standing bridge.  The pontoon bridge is strong, no sign of swaying or shaking which this reporter expected.  On the other side, downstream, there are six boats, tugboats (there are even wheels visible on them) which are holding it steady or pushing it into place, whenever required.  The approach to the bridge on the other side of the River Morava is also being worked on.

EXTREME CONDITIONS: The bridge itself has its own anchors which were cast upstream.  In the case of the pontoon bridge near Mijatovac this procedure was not followed, but the anchor cables were instead fixed to the columns of the damaged bridge, for this is stronger.  "The other bridge which fell into the Morava River created rapids on that location," the Captain explained, pointing to the spot in the river which is like a whirlpool.  "This creates greater pressure on the pontoon bridge, but all the same its standing quite firmly."  The Captain explains that when the bridge was being put into place, the level of the river was slightly higher and the current was faster, over four meters per hour.  He says that the bridge could eventually be carried off by the water, but that would truly require extreme conditions.

The bridge is six and a half meters wide.  It can support 60 tons and is presently 106 meters long, the Captain quotes.  Why "presently"?  "A pontoon bridge floats and that is why its length must correspond to the width of the river.  That is why it is constructed of segments 6.75 meters long which are removed whenever the water level drops, and are added, whenever it rises," the Captain explains.  That is why a pontoon bridge must have a permanent crew which takes care of it 'round the clock.  While we were watching, a group of soldiers removed a segment of the bridge, after which operation a bulldozer "slightly" corrected the approach to the bridge, pushing a certain amount of gravel into the river.

O.K., if that's how things stand, why is the bridge not working?  "It's working, but not officially," the Captain answered.  And truly, while the VREME team was in the vicinity of the bridge, around ten civilian vehicles crossed it.  "Officially, the bridge is closed to traffic because the approach to it is being constructed," the Captain continued.  Initially the entrance to the bridge was made of earth so that it soon turned into mud from truck and car traffic.  Beside this, luxury cars and even truck could not get on the bridge because they are low.  Now the approach to the bridge is being filled with gravel.  Soon it will be open to traffic, after the gravel is leveled and rolled after which it will be covered with asphalt.

The Captain took us to the remaining bridge over the Morava River.  A steel construction was place over the gaping hole, with thick boards placed overtop.  "This is the American construction Baily, the best there is," the Captain informed us.  More technical details: length 48.5 meters, width four meters, supports 40 tons.  But the surface of this bridge is about seventy centimeters higher that the level of the bridge on which it was placed, without any approach.

ARMY DID ITS JOB: One group of uniformed youths are presently working on this.  They are carrying steel supports weighing 400 kilograms.  In the unbearable heat one of them gets a nosebleed.  He is taken into the shade   the cover of a tent door, also placed on the hot asphalt.  "All this was done by reservists and not by the regular army," the Captain stated with pride.  The pontoon bridge was constructed by the engineers of the Army Post 3957 from Cuprija, and the launched Baily pontoon bridge was put together by Army Post 4135 from Sabac.  This temporary bridge will also be completed soon, although the officer we were speaking to could not tell us exactly when.  "To tell you honestly, the Army did its job.  All the dallying is being done by these civilian construction companies which are working on the approaches to the bridges," the Captain said in confidence.

The young man at the poll booth was right after all.  On June 21 General Ojdanic did "open to traffic" and launched a bridge which Politika daily wrote about, and which bridged the damage on the part of the highway which was not destroyed.  At that time the Army General emphasized that the Yugoslav Army received an order from its supreme commander Slobodan Milosevic, which it carried out in one day's time.  Ojdanic stated at the ceremony that this brings Europe and Asia together, avoiding traffic bottlenecks and stoppages which result from byways and which permits construction companies to work on the rebuilding of the existing bridges without hindering traffic.  But the temporary bridges has still not been completed even today.  Let alone the fact that at not point did an chief of the supreme headquarters ever officially open a pontoon bridge by cutting a ribbon.  The building of such constructions ought to be a routine matter for engineers.

It sounds absurd, but it is more convenient for what happens to be called the Serbian economy for the bridges on the Morava River not to be working.  On our way back, in Jagodina, we come to a stop near a plastic bottle filled with green liquid which has been left on the burning asphalt.  Soon, from the shade of a nearby garage, the owner of this "gasoline pump" shows up.  He says that his business in flourishing ever since the road to Cuprija became the Belgrade-Nis Highway.  "Otherwise, the locals from Cuprija only buy a liter or two, at most five.  Peanuts."

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