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12 Dec 07

Belgrade Reveals Its Secret Underground

Maze of tunnels, some dating to Roman times, recalls dark and thrilling episodes in the life of an ancient city.
By Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade
It was on October 19, 1944 that a group of German troops was attempting to break the contact between the advancing Yugoslav Partisans and the Red Army, then moving towards Belgrade.

As Anika Topalovic, then 13, watched the frantic exchange of small arms and artillery fire, the Germans vanished inside the entry to a building in at the corner of Nemanjina and Kneza Milosa streets.

“When I asked my grandpa where they went, he said they’d gone into the tunnels that lead to somewhere near the train station,” Topalovic recalled in a recent interview.

“The next morning the city was liberated but for some days an occasional German soldier would pop out from the underground, fire a round or toss a hand grenade and vanish again,” she recalled.

Topalovic’s account is one of hundreds of wartime stories that tell of how the occupying German troops discovered one of Belgrade’s secrets - the seemingly endless warren of underground tunnels, dugouts and storages.

Belgrade is an ancient city, dating back to the Roman era and beyond. For centuries its various rulers, Celts, Romans, Huns, Slavic tribes, Byzantines, Hungarians, Ottoman Turks, Serbs, Austrians and Germans, struggled to control the confluence of rivers Sava and Danube and so hold this gateway to Europe.

Over those centuries, they carved out a maze of underground passages, fortifications, storage areas, bunkers and command posts, many of which are now totally forgotten.

Sealed with rubble, they lie locked and hidden under the modern sprawling city. Only the odd archaeologist or historian knows much about them.

Usually, underground Belgrade surfaces only during construction works, when heavy machinery breaks through the brick walls of thin limestone, exposing long-forgotten secrets.

One amateur who has chanced on this lost world is Sasa Gledja, an avid fan of the city’s mysterious underground.

Pushing open a rusty door in the district of Kosutnjak, metres from modern apartment blocks, he nudges his way into the gloom.

Gledja has been here before. Lowering himself down rusty ladders and down a dark hallway that stretches for about 50 metres to another room, he flicks a switch and a single bulb spreads its yellowish light over what appears to be a dormitory.

This is no Roman ruin. Steel beds are attached to walls and running water trickles from taps over tin sinks and toilets. Meters of rusty wires stretch across ceiling to another similar room. “It’s is an old German command post,” Gledja says. “From this vantage point, they controlled the entire city.”

The corridors running under Kosutnjak’s Kneza Viseslava Street are some 300 metres long and about two metres wide. Some end in bunkers holding machineguns posts and artillery emplacements, which are now sealed.

A piece of old cardboard protruding from behind an electric switchboard reveals a pencil drawing of a German soldier bending under a heavy rucksack and rifle up to his knees in mud with the word ”Serbien”, Serbia in German, on it. A signature reads: “Leon Tatchnik, Wien. 1944.”

After the war, the Yugoslav People’s Army continued to use the former German underground facilities for a time, according to Gledja: “They could not use all of them as German sappers had mined many. Some explosive charges are still there”.

The caves under the Tasmajdan square in the middle of Belgrade were originally much older - used first by Romans to quarry limestone. But in the Second World War, the Germans converted some of these, too, into command posts and warehouses.

Researches believe that dozens of corridors, some big enough for trucks to drive down, lead from here to the Belgrade University Law School, which during the war housed the German command for Southeastern Europe. One cave has been converted into a club, while others are either empty or sealed.

Vidoje Golubovic a historian and researcher, believes up to a thousand troops could have been accommodated in the caves under Tasmajdan.

During a recent guided tour to the Belgrade’s underground, Golubovic said the hero of Serbia’s war for independence from Turkey in 1804, Karadjordje Petrovic, used the caves as a command post for his attack on the Ottoman garrison in Belgrade. “No one quite knows how many corridors are around. Armies would vanish here to resurface somewhere else,” Golubovic mused.

On the opposite side of the city stands the Kalemegdan fortress. A star-shaped typical baroque fortress, its central parts are also a mixture of 14th-century Serbian and Turkish towers and even Roman walls.

Under the fort is another maze of tunnels, depots, dungeons and dugouts, some still not mapped and explored. Some stretch all the way to the former port along the Sava bank, less than a kilometre from its confluence with Danube.

The Kula Nebojsa or Fearless Tower, a three-story octagonal gun emplacement, dominates the confluence. Built by the Hungarians around 1460 it was used to protect the harbour. But under Turkish rule it was also used as a dungeon and a torture chamber. Here, the Greek revolutionary and poet Riga Fereos and the Serbian Bishop Metodije were strangled in 18th century.

The Turks hung their opponents on wooden girders on the tower’s outer walls, so they could be seen by everyone in the city and from barges on Sava. Skulls adorned the roof, while the decapitated bodies were thrown to the ravens and crows outside.

Fishermen still claim they hear noises from the tower on dark nights. “One night I was just about to pass through the ramparts that separate Kula Nebojsa area from the street when I heard a horrible scream from the direction of the tower,” Kosta, a local fisherman, says. “I thought someone was being attacked, but when I looked there was no one there. Then I heard that agonizing scream again from the inside. I used the torchlight but could not see anyone. I got spooked and fled.”

The Kalemegdan fortress is home to another of Belgrade’s dark secrets, the so-called Roman Well. In fact, it is not Roman but was completed by the Austrians between 1719 and 1739, during their short-lived rule over the city.

In an attempt to improve the mismanaged and dilapidated Turkish fort, the Austrians decided to complete the well on which work had started centuries earlier and so secure water supplies in case of a long siege. However, they never reached the water table or penetrated through solid rock at the bottom, so it remained a pit.

“The water inside it has actually been accumulated through water draining in from outside,” Gledja says. The entrance is now closed by a steel door and is only seldom opened for visitors. Some 200 stairs lead to the bottom where the dark waters hide some grim stories.

One concerns a group of Hungarian nobles thrown in there in 1494, when Belgrade was a Christian outpost in the path of the advancing Ottoman Turks. The nobles had plotted to hand the city to the Turkish invaders for a hefty bribe. But the then commander of the city uncovered the plot and threw the 37 conspirators in the pit.

There they were left without food for days until several knives were dropped to the crazed men. They stabbed and cannibalized each other until the last one starved to death.

The well is linked to other tragic incidents. In 1882, two women, Jelena Ilka Markovic and Lena Knicanin, attempted to assassinate the Serbian king Milan Obrenovic on his coronation day. Both were arrested. Markovic was soon strangled in her prison cell but Knicanin was detained in the Roman Well where she died soon afterwards.

Gledja knows more recent ghoulish tales concerning the well. “In 1942 two German divers attempted to dive to the well’s bottom. They never surfaced,” he says. In the 1950s, a man killed his girlfriend and dropped her body in the well.

It was only in the mid-1960 that some Yugoslav scuba divers managed to reach the bottom of the well where under 15 metres of murky water they found two skeletons.

Not all the stories linked to the pits and tunnels in Belgrade are so grim. At least two Belgrade neighborhoods have put their tunnels and former secret passages to practical use, as food and wine stores, Golubovic says.

In the Karadjordjeva and Kosancicev Venac streets, for example, numerous tunnels have been dug into the hillside and in Zemun, formerly a key Austrian port just outside Belgrade, the neighbourhoods of Muhar and Cukovac are “almost hollow,” he says.

“There are 13 dugouts in Karadjordjeva Street and dozens in Muhar and Cukovac. Restaurant owners or merchants would dig a tunnel and cover its floor with ice taken from the Danube in winter. It would serve as a refrigerator for wine and food,” he adds.

Locals in Belgrade found a more recent use for their old tunnels during in the conflict with NATO in 1999. They knew of the tunnels in Kosancicev Venac that had served as air raid shelters both from German and Allied bombers. When NATO launched its 78-day bombing of Serbia, many people from the area sought refuge in the tunnels. “We thought if it protected our parents and grandparents it might just protect us,” Dejan Savic, 40, recalls.

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