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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

December 1962

The Building of the Roads

An engineer by training who has had exceptional success in leading the young, Tomislav Badovinac was in charge of 49,000 brigaders who were at work on the Yugoslav throughway from April to November of 1961.

by Tomislav Badovinac


It all started in the middle of our war for national liberation, in the territories which the partisans were liberating from the enemy. In midsummer of 1942, the first youth work brigade was formed in the Bosnian Krajina. Its two thousand volunteers were mostly girls, since the young men were already in the fighting units. Working through the night in the immediate vicinity of the enemy's fortified bunkers, this brigade in ninety days succeeded in harvesting, threshing, and transporting to the liberated territories 120 freight-car loads of wheat and 150 car loads of potatoes and beans. Later, in the winter, this same brigade helped the People's Liberation Army in transporting wounded partisans. After that, throughout the war, in all liberated territories, youth work brigades were formed.

At the war's end the economy of the country was in ruins, the transportation system paralyzed, and our educational and scientific institutions had been pitilessly destroyed. In Bosnia only 139 of the 1043 elementary school buildings were usable. It was imperative to start building a new life, and youth, as usual, saw prospects for a happier future in everything that was new. In those days the young people saved corn from further decay in the abandoned fields, helped to rebuild burned villages, transported grain to provinces threatened by famine, and collected fuel for hospitals and homes. In addition, from 1945 to 1952 youth participated in the building of some seventy major projects under the first Five-Year Plan.

The railroad line Brcko-Banovici was the first all-Yugoslav youth objective. Over 62,000 young men and women built this line, 56 miles long, between May 1 and November 7, 1946, and thus made possible the extraction of coal in that part of Bosnia. Working under rugged conditions day and night, they finished this line twenty-two days before the target date.

A still larger undertaking was set for the next year, 1947. Struggling against terrible difficulties, 217,234 young builders completed in seven and a half months the railroad line from Samac to Sarajevo, 150 miles long and with 37 miles of station roadbeds. On this important traffic artery lies the famous Vranduk Tunnel, slightly under a mile long, the boring of which was a dramatic struggle from beginning to end. Insufficiently equipped, always in danger of floods which threatened the working area, and without any modern technical equipment, the young brigades stormed the rocky walls of these mountains, and the tunnel went through at the speed of 59 feet a day on both sides. In addition to our own, there were fifty-six brigades from foreign countries working on this railroad line, with a total of 5842 youths from thirty-nine countries, including the United States.

On the railroad line from Banja Luka to Doboj, one of the three tunnels, Ljeskove Vode, nearly a mile long, was the most difficult single project ever attempted in Yugoslavia because of the enormous amount of work which had to be done by means of caissons or cofferdams. Of the sixteen large factories which the youth brigades have built, many are among the best of our young industry, like the toolmaking factory Ivo-Lola Ribar in Zagreb, the copper-rolling factory in Sevojno, the cable factory in Svetozarevo. Five of our biggest hydroelectric dams and power stations--Jablanica, Mavrovo, Vinodol, Vlasina, and Zvornik--are also the work of youth. Besides these federally organized work projects, in which the youth from all parts of the nation have participated, there are literally hundreds of local projects, such as the building of rural schools, electrification of villages, reforestation, and irrigation. Finally, the modern throughway named "Brotherhood and Unity," 681 miles long, from Ljubljana to Djevdjelija, from the northwestern to the southernmost part of the country, will be finished in the course of 1963, and in its building more than 550,000 young people have already participated.

What this contribution of voluntary physical labor has meant to our country has been summed up in these words by President Tito: "I can state with clear conscience that our youth played the determining role in the rehabilitation of the country, in the first years of the building of basic industries as well as in the overcoming of our economic difficulties in that period."

However, the importance of this work cannot be measured exclusively by economic indicators. Early in the undertaking, one heard the slogan, "We build the road, the road builds us!" For some participants, the turnpike, railroad line, or factory was actually an education. Many have chosen their professions as a result of their experience. Today, many former participants in the labor projects can be found in modern institutes and laboratories, scientific institutions, and health centers. The projects develop in participants a healthy respect for manual labor, especially in the case of high school and university students. To fulfill one's quota, to achieve above the average, to be the best--that is an honor for each individual. In the routines of a work brigade, the young volunteer realizes the indispensability of organization and of discipline. Through the collective effort which helps him to mature, a young man sees his country not as static, but as it will be. Its future is closer to him since he is helping to build it with his own hands.

Assembled from all over the country, from all the republics, boys and girls come to know one another better, to understand one another, as they are brought together by joint efforts and problems to joint victories, joys, and recreation. Through various forms of joint activity--athletic events, cultural enterprises, campfires, dances, competition in work--a high degree of camaraderie is developed as an integral part of the brotherhood and unity of our youth, and thus of our peoples.

Our country is a multinational state. As Cedo Samardzic, a member of the youth brigade from Pristina, wrote: "Our brigade is formed of youths from thirty villages. Earlier we had never known one another. The fact that members of the brigade were of the Albanian national minority or were Serbs or Montenegrins was no obstacle to their getting to know one another quickly and becoming good friends. Our brigaders feel the need for comradeship with other brigades in the settlement. And the friendships acquired at that time last longer than the two months we are together; they remain strong when we return home, and they are maintained through visits and correspondence."

The first post-war projects did not leave the participants much free time. It was necessary to raise the country from ashes rapidly, and it was just as necessary to train qualified workers. Free hours in the youth settlements were used for combating illiteracy and mastering a trade. But ever since 1958, those engaged on large-scale projects have been held to a maximum of six hours of labor. Through the programs of social activities, the brigaders choose the way in which they wish to utilize their free time. These programs, which are not uniform, since the brigades from villages have programs different from those of high school and university students, embrace a variety of courses.

The settlements, which house several hundred young people, are some four miles apart, and they are like small towns. The boys and girls live in separate barracks. In front of the barracks, decorated with realistic as well as abstract drawings, not far from the headquarters of the brigade stands the flagpole on which every morning the flag is raised high by the brigader who had the best record during the previous workday. Every youth settlement has its sports field and a great variety of sports equipment, and these fields have become the centers for competition with the teams of neighboring villages and towns. In their spare time the workers play chess, read newspapers, including the one published by themselves, read magazines and books from the settlement's library, write letters, or watch television. In the evenings there is dancing, sometimes for prizes, and open-air theatricals.

At the very beginning of the formation of brigades in cities, in schools, and at universities, the volunteers elect their own leaders. The most important ruling body in the brigade is the plenary conference of the whole brigade, which decides all important matters for the collective. Those who are not accustomed to speak in front of a large audience at first do not have the courage to step forward, yet in Yugoslavia numerous decisions are arrived at in open meetings, so it is important that every member of a brigade acquire the habit of speaking freely in front of his comrades. The democratically elected staff, headed by the commander of the brigade, organizes the work on the site and also a part of the social activities of brigades. The members of the staff do not enjoy any preferential treatment and work as all brigaders do, and the plenary conference of the brigade may always dismiss them.

Life in the settlements is regulated by the Council of Settlements, whose executive official is the commander of the settlement. The general staff of the youth work brigades consists of six members, each of whom is delegated by the Central Committees of the People's Youth of the six republics, together with the commander, who is appointed by the Central Committee of the People's Youth of Yugoslavia.

The leadership of brigades consisting of youth from foreign countries is quite interesting. These groups usually number ten to fifteen boys and girls from a single country, and they have their own elected representatives. The brigade is a miniature United Nations Assembly in which sharp differentiations never occur.

Thus, by acquiring the habits of leadership and teamwork, the young people have been living with a conscious realization that it is imperative to overcome the backwardness of the country and, by their mass participation, to bring to their work enthusiasm and unusual driving power. As one of our novelists, Berislav Kosijer, has put it: "A collection of contradictions: we could work no longer, yet still we worked; we were unable to march, yet daily we marched for miles; our backs refused to bend, and we forced them to do so again and again, thousands of times; from our hands the last piece of old skin peeled off, and still there was enough there every day to scrape and peel again....They asked us: What are your names, what is the name of your generation? And we said: Call us anything you wish. We were here, we have existed, and that is impossible to forget."

Translated by Milos Velimirovic.


Copyright © 1962 by Tomislav Badovinac. All rights reserved.
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