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Wednesday, July 28, 1999 Published at 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK

World: Europe

Building bridges in Serbia

Nato targetted bridges all along the Danube

By Jacky Rowland in Novi Sad

Just days after the end of the conflict with Nato, the Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, made a rare public appearance.

Kosovo: Special Report
He stood on the edge of the destroyed Beska bridge in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, just one of the many bridges bombed by Nato.

And he made a promise too the crowd of Serb workers bussed in for the event: "This bridge will be rebuilt within 40 days," he said.

Jacky Rowland reports from Novi Sad
Rash words maybe, but the man who led Yugoslavia to war needed to be seen as its rebuilder.

Just 36 days later a big ceremony was held on the Beska bridge to mark its reopening.

A commemorative plaque read: "The world is divided into destroyers and rebuilders. But history only remembers the rebuilders."

A job half done

But in their rush to meet President Milosevic's deadline, the workers had to cut corners.

[ image: Novi Sad was worse hit than any other city]
Novi Sad was worse hit than any other city
Instead of erecting proper supports under the bridge, they rebuilt it on a pile of earth.

Experts now fear the soil will be washed away when the river Danube swells in the winter.

But for now the bridge is open, once again linking Belgrade to the northern city of Novi Sad.

Novi Sad is the historical capital of Vojvodina, a region known for its independent spirit.

Of all the cities attacked by Nato, Novi Sad was the worst hit. Nato bombs knocked out the bridges, making river barges a fact of daily life.

People here have a black sense of humour. The Danube, they say, is the only river in Europe that flows over three bridges.

Building for the people

The city council is controlled by an opposition party and it's not counting on Mr Milosevic's government to rebuild Novi Sad.

Alexander Ivkovac, who works for the local authority, argues that repairing the bridges is a humanitarian not a reconstruction issue.

In this way he hopes to get around what is in effect a Western ban on reconstruction aid to Serbia.

"The possibility that Europe may help us clean the Danube and restore traffic to the river would be a symbol of our region belonging to Europe," he said.

German interest in historic city

Alexander recently had an important meeting at the city hall which he hoped would advance his reconstruction plans.

A German engineer, Siegfried Ruschenbaum, came to Novi Sad to assess the extent of the damage to the bridges. His company is interested in winning the contract to rebuild one of them.

But this would depend on a political decision in the West to release economic aid to Serbia.

It seems somehow appropriate that a German firm should win the contract to rebuild it: the original bridge was constructed by German prisoners at the end of the World War II.

Serbia will not be officially represented at the regional reconstruction summit in Sarajevo this week. No-one from the government will be able to plead the case for Novi Sad's bridges.

The West needs to ask itself a crucial question: How can it reconstruct south-eastern Europe if it leaves out the vital building block that is Serbia.

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