GORAZDE, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Residents of the eastern Bosnian city of Gorazde need no imagination to understand the plight of the people of Ukraine. Three decades ago, they endured more than three years of extreme hardship when the Bosnian Serbs bombarded their town with rockets and artillery from the surrounding hills.
The long siege during the inter-ethnic Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995 cut off Gorazde’s access to electricity, food, medicine and the outside world. The people there found creative ways to keep the lights on and the heating running, survival tips they are now sharing with civilians plunged into darkness and cold by Russia’s relentless missile and drone attacks on the power grid of Ukraine.
Edin Culov, governor of the Gorazde region, said friends and acquaintances working for the European Union mission in Bosnia in Sarajevo contacted him late last year seeking information for a humanitarian effort to provide Ukrainians with an alternative source of electricity.
They specifically wanted “drawings, photographs, video recordings or anything else” about the “miniature power plants” used in Gorazde in the 1990s. The plants consisted of home-built paddle wheels mounted on wooden platforms with electrical generators. . Locals set them up around a bridge on the Drina River, where barrels and ropes kept them afloat.
Each “plant” had a main supply cable running from its generator to the bridge, from where smaller cables carried power to the buildings. Depending on the volume of water below the reach, the contraptions produced enough electricity for the Gorazde hospital and for residents who lived close enough to the river to keep a light bulb on, listen to the radio, and occasionally watch television.
A small group of mechanical and electrical engineers who honed their skills in the city’s prewar manufacturing industry, which produced everything from weapons to textiles, built the first prototype. Its clever, yet simple design allowed do-it-yourselfers to create the mini-plants from motors, alternators, capacitors, and scrap material salvaged from Gorazde’s bombed-out factories, vehicles, and homes.
Paddle wheels quickly flourished on the river. Siege survivors credit the contraptions with helping the city hold out and becoming the only enclave in eastern Bosnia never to be captured by Serb forces. After the war ended, the team was withdrawn and dismantled.
In response to the EU’s request all these years later, Culov said that the city collected everything it could find and he went to the radio in Bosnia to request the surviving documents and memorabilia. The information was handed over to the EU mission in Bosnia, which shared it with Ukraine, he said.
“I assume they will use the material we provide to develop some test models and then, if feasible, start mass producing (miniature) power plants” for distribution throughout the country, Culov explained.
Among those who responded to Culov’s request for information were two surviving members of the original development team.
Aziz Lepenica, who had taught engineering at the city’s technical high school until he suffered a stroke a couple of years ago, offered to return to show students how to prepare design drawings and technical calculations suitable for Ukraine.
During the Bosnian war, “We didn’t make drawings. We didn’t have time for that,” Lepenica said. “We did all the calculations and construction plans in our heads.”
During her years of teaching, Lepenica helped her students build a replica of the local power plants. It was placed on the river bank, next to the central bridge of Gorazde, in 2016 to serve as a monument to the days when, as Lepenica said, “life was unbearable, but our morale was high.”
“It would mean a lot to us if it turns out that we can help people (in Ukraine) who are deprived of electricity like we are,” Lepenica said.
Murat Heto, another of the inventors, also helped prepare the documentation for Ukraine.
“With everything we’ve been through, one would have to be made of wood not to empathize with (Ukrainians),” said the retired electrician, recalling how lights powered by miniature power plants developed by his team “made all the difference ”. ” in wartime Gorazde.
Some 7,000 civilians were killed or seriously injured in the city. Residents often went out only at night to avoid relentless sniper and artillery attacks. An influx of refugees from the surrounding areas nearly doubled the population to 70,000.
While the refusal of Serb forces to allow UN aid convoys into Gorazde kept food and medicine in short supply, the power plants were a “symbol of our determination to resist, not to give in,” Heto said.
“I wish it hadn’t happened to us or Ukraine, but when people are pushed into a corner and face the threat of extermination, everything becomes possible,” he said.