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A Serbian Engineer's Two-Wheeled Message Of Peace

Sixty-two-year-old Rasko Tanasijevic at the Sumarice war memorial in Kragujevac on July 31
KRAGUJEVAC, Serbia -- In a sense, Rasko Tanasijevic's entire life has been about roads and bridges.

Every summer for the past 10 years the retired automotive engineer has led a group of cyclists through heat, rain, and punishing hills for 470 kilometers from his hometown of Kragujevac in central Serbia to Mostar in southwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Tanasijevic's purpose is simple enough -- to resurrect the good will and comradeship that he remembers from the Yugoslavia of his youth, from a time before the Balkan wars plunged the region into a mire of ethnic and religious animosity.

Ten cyclists, mostly from the Junior Paralympic Club in Kragujevac, left home on July 24. Kragujevic Deputy Mayor Bojadzic Pavlovic was on hand to give them a warm send-off.

"Kragujevac, as a [United Nations] Messenger of Peace City, sends in this way a message of peace to the whole world," the official told RFE/RL. "That message is gathering more and more support from those in favor of cooperation between the citizens of Serbia and those of Bosnia. The reactions are phenomenal, and our citizens greet these athletes with great joy. You cannot imagine the popularity this marathon has on the Bosnian side. It is something unreal."

The Serbs rolled into Mostar at noon on July 27, with the 62-year-old Tanasijevic following in a support van providing extra inner tubes, water bottles, and inspiration. The exhausted guests joined locals for the traditional annual plunge from Mostar's iconic 16th-century Old Bridge (Stari Most), which was destroyed on November 9, 1993 during the Bosnian War and reconstructed between 2001 and 2004.

Cyclist Goran Nikolic, who participated in this year's marathon ride, noted that sport is building bridges throughout the region.

"Every year we see the biggest human exchange on the territory of the former Yugoslavia with more than 1,000 young athletes visiting various cities," he said. "This is a significant contribution to spreading friendship and mutual understanding."

'Everyone Needs Peace'

Back in Kraguljevac a few days later, the wiry, serious Tanasijevic visited the memorial complex at Sumarice, a massive monument at the site where some 2,300 Serbian men and boys were massacred by Nazi troops on October 21, 1941. The solemn ground, he says, made a permanent impression on him when he was brought there as a child.

"One day of war destroys everything that has been built over many years," he says in measured tones while describing his sense of mission. "And later it takes intelligence -- real, healthy intelligence -- to normalize the situation for those who lived through it, so that they can survive it and teach their children that such horrors must not happen again anywhere in the world and especially not here. Everyone needs peace."

Tanasijevic's cyclists usually join locals for the traditional annual plunge from Mostar's iconic 16th-century Stari Most bridge.
Tanasijevic's cyclists usually join locals for the traditional annual plunge from Mostar's iconic 16th-century Stari Most bridge.

For many years, Tanasijevic worked at the sprawling Zastava automobile plant in Kraguljevic. The enterprise once employed tens of thousands and was at the center of a network of plants and distributors that stitched Yugoslavia together. Tanasijevic himself traveled on business to virtually every corner of the country in those days, from Kranj to Gevgelije, from Subotica to Zadar.

The outgoing engineer made friends wherever he went, but Mostar; the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo; and the Croatian port city of Split captured his heart.

His first trip after the 1995 Dayton peace agreement brought an end to the Bosnian war is one that he will never forget.

"I had to go to Banja Luka [in the ethnic-Serb-populated northern region of Bosnia] on a business trip," he said. "Just imagine how it felt for someone who grew up thinking war could never happen. Because I believed that my grandfather and father had fought enough war for five generations -- for me, my sons, my grandsons.... We went through Brcko and Derventa and I was shocked by what I saw. The scars of war were so brutal, so hard that I could not get a hold of myself."

Rebuilding Bridges

Years later, the idea of organizing a cycling tour through the former war zone -- going via Sarajevo to Mostar -- occurred to Tanasijevic and some of his friends at the Junior Paralympic Club. It was just at the time when the Stari Most in Mostar had been rebuilt and Tanasijevic saw the bicycle journey as a way to "rebuild the destroyed bridge of friendship" between the two cities and between Serbia and Bosnia.

The annual marathon has restored Tanasijevic's faith in the possibilities of friendship across the region as his young charges pound out the kilometers at a pace that encourages contact with the people he meets.

"The fact is that everyone is good to me," he said. "And I am good to them. And I know I must do everything in my power to make sure war will never happen again."

Ivanka Bulic is first secretary in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Embassy in Serbia, and she welcomes the restoration of person-to-person links between Kragujevac and Mostar.

"This cooperation on the level of culture and sports should expand to the economic and political sectors and to all other spheres of life," she says. "The marathon [bicycle tour] has exceeded all expectations by being organized for the 10th time, much to the joy of the citizens of both cities."

But Tanasijevic is not finished. He is already dreaming of next year, when he hopes the cyclists of Kragujevac will be joined by like-minded riders from Uzice, Visegrad, and Sarajevo. And he hopes that, after the traditional bridge dive at the end of the bike ride in Mostar, the road trip will continue by car all the way to Split in Croatia.

"The trip needs to continue as we all used to be friends with Split -- the people from Zastava," he said. "It is my greatest wish to see my two granddaughters having friends in Mostar or in Split."

Written in Prague by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Branko Vuckovic from Kragujevic and reporting from Sarajevo and Mostar.