Escape from Tuzla

Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief

If something can go wrong with cars or the weather in Bosnia, it will.
Two weeks ago, after a nice leisurely drive down from Zagreb with Angelica, my new partner, we arrived in Zupanja with hopes for a quick crossing of the river and a straight shot into Tuzla and then down to Sarajevo. That's about as far as the plan got.

Angelica, Bartlett's new partner in journalism When we got to the road to the ferry crossing, it was wall to wall semi-trucks. We would have been there forever but I spied some IFOR vehicles coming up and with some fancy driving managed to slide in amongst them. The Croatian cop down at the river sort of raised his eyebrows at our press credentials but Angelica has a sort of magic she works at checkpoints and he left us alone. In fact, we have it down to a science — Angelica does most of the talking and sort of radiates this, love, flowers and sunshine energy. I mumble and radiate toxic death, stay away! Does the trick every time, and we got across before the millennium. But that was the end of it.

Across the river and into Bosnia proper our luck started running short. Just getting onto the road to Tuzla spoke of things to come. Trucks and military vehicles were backed up for miles and we almost got broadsided by a HEMMET — some huge eight wheeled army transport vehicle. But after a while we started rolling along and were on our way. Then came the first surprise of the trip — a Serb checkpoint smack dab in the middle of the Posavina corridor. My heart came up into my throat as he waved us over. I doubted they would kill us, but taking the car and generally causing problems was a real possibility. As he looked over our credentials Angelica said something to him and the "love and flowers/toxic death" combo worked again. He waved us through. Aside from traffic the rest of the ride into Tuzla was uneventful.

That's when things stated going from bad to worse. After a good night's sleep I woke to find a blizzard in full force had descended over the entire area. A couple of quick calls around to Reuterss and AP brought news of about of a meter of snow and ice on the Kladanj/Olovo pass. My little Polo is a trooper, but not over that kind of soup. Even the Land Rovers were staying home. But hey, there were some things to do in Tuzla, precious few but something anyway. That's when I found the window.

All of Bosnia is becoming a thieves' paradise with open season declared on foreigners. During the night, someone, probably kids, smashed out the side window of the car to steal all the cassettes, my hat, and one tire chain. Yes, one tire chain. Go figure. On top of depriving me of my music, there was about four feet of snow in the car. I felt like Santa Claus driving over to the Soldier of Fortune house to see the resident owner/repair shop proprietor. No problem, there was a glass guy he knew who could slap a Plexiglas one in there. A new window for Berserkistan's Polo Only one more problem, it was Sunday, and nobody was working. Couldn't really go anywhere without being able to secure the car so it was sitsville till Monday.

Getting the window fixed proved to be only time consuming but quite interesting none the less. Bosnians have been cut off from all but the most basic supplies for four years and have become quite adapt at improvising almost everything.

While Angelica talked to the receptionist and I watched, they custom cut a piece of Plexiglas and fitted it where the old window had been. The thing even rolled up and down. The bill for the Plexiglas It was too late in the day to try to go to Sarajevo so we hunted around for the old women from Srebrenica who had trashed the Red Cross building in Tuzla recently.

Tracking them down proved to be harder than expected and when we were finally getting close, a colleague informed me that they hate the press and stoned some photographers recently. I had already lost one window and was not about to lose a windshield so we passed on the "Babushka Women" as they have become known in press circles.

Next morning we got set to head out, but first went up to the airport to get some info. This proved to be another automotive disaster. On the way back, while dodging a military convoy I hit the mother of all potholes at about 60. I knew immediately we had sustained a major hit. The front bumper was off. Again. The right front rim was square, a chunk of sidewall the size of a soup can had blown out and the muffler was dragging. Again. I limped the stricken Polo up to a mini-market and hopped out to fix the flat only to find the spare had gone limp since we had left Zagreb. It had enough air in it to get us down the road and a tire place so after yet another delay we were off again.

A wreck on the road By this point we were becoming obsessed with escaping from Tuzla so when about a mile down the road we came upon an accident it was par for the course. Nobody was hurt, but some guy had totally missed the turn and wound up upside-down in a creek. They wheeled up some kind of crane and lifted him up and out. Locals and fellow traffic jammers helped push it upright. Traffic began moving again and gave me just enough running time to slide off the road and bury the front end dodging a Mack truck on the narrow mountain road.

Once I got unstuck from that small disaster I was turned around and it took about two miles before I could find a place to turn around. By then it was dark and any hope of repair or Sarajevo was gone, again. Next day we overslept, but managed to limp over to the SOF house to get the bumper and the muffler fixed and get new tire chains, again. The rest of the day was spent trying to find a tire replacement and have the guy make the rim round again.

Welding our mobile unit back together Finally we could go, but would have to watch it. When they fixed the muffler they also discovered that the gas tank had been smashed flat. The rest of the trip was stopping time and again to pour gas into a 1-litre bottle and into the tank, then repeat it about ten times. Funnels are practically impossible to find and the fill up hose was crushed to about half it's size so fuel had to be dribbled in by the shot glass.

I was thinking real serious about kicking down on one of Gary's Rovers. We finally made it to Sarajevo the next day, half our time blown, but there anyway. "Sarajevo Winter," the annual arts and music festival, was just starting and it proved to be a much more pleasant experience.

Ed. Note: That's what happened to Jim's car. Here's what happened to the laptop.

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