Danube's Blockage Divides Europe

SULINA, Romania -- Dumitru Melicencu, 48, is a skilled mechanic who does engine repairs at the local shipyard. But that's not often these days, because hundreds of kilometers upstream at Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, the Danube River is still blocked by the wreckage of bridges that NATO bombed last year.

"When the blockage began, a crisis started here," Melicencu said. "Commerce with other countries was lost. We had no more work."

Rising amid the Grimm's fairy-tale beauty of Germany's Black Forest, the 2,830-kilometer Danube flows through or alongside nine countries with a total population of 202 million.

This blockage has reopened the wounds of the Cold War, leaving Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine deprived of their cheapest and most emotionally evocative link to the rich countries of Western Europe.

For those upstream from Yugoslavia, the blockage of the river is an inconvenience. For those downstream, it is a disaster. And a Danube journey brings the difference into sharp relief. Idyllic scenes of pleasure in Germany and Austria give way to the resentment-filled struggle for survival that marks life in the poorest former Soviet bloc countries.

In Regensburg, Germany, Laszlo Zoltan Feher, 40, captain of a Hungarian boat used to push barges, said he fears the river won't be reopened until Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic loses power. But he thinks that day may not be far away.

"I believe Milosevic is finished," Feher said. "Milosevic has made many wars and the Yugoslav people want him to go."

The Danube's role as a freight highway starts at the southern German town of Kelheim, where the river connects to the Main-Danube Canal. By linking the Danube through the Main River to the Rhine River, the canal makes shipping possible from Rotterdam, on the North Sea, across Europe to the Black Sea.

The opening of the canal in 1992 fulfilled a dream that goes back to Charlemagne, who in 793 launched work on a canal designed to link a tributary of the Danube to a tributary of the Main. The ditch was abandoned after little more than a kilometer, but the idea never died.

Yugoslavia's wars of the 1990s have meant that the full potential of this transcontinental river link has yet to be realized.

Since last year's Kosovo conflict, many shipping companies f especially in Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine f have been hit hard by the blockage at Novi Sad. The ruined bridges leave narrow channels that barges can slip through only with extreme care. Also, a pontoon bridge made of barges stretched across the river blocks all shipping.

In much of Austria, the Danube is a wondrous playground. Given the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Vienna as the capital and Budapest, now the Hungarian capital, as the second city, Austrians also are keenly conscious of how the Danube links them with Hungary.

Flowing east from Vienna, the Danube soon enters Slovakia, created when Czechoslovakia split up in 1993. Near Slovakia's border with Hungary, the river flows into a long, shallow lake that rises behind the Gabcikovo Dam, long the subject of bitter controversy.

Czechoslovakia and Hungary agreed in 1977 to a joint dam project in the area, but a strong anti-dam environmental movement arose in Hungary in the 1980s. Hungary backed out of the project, but Czechoslovakia and then Slovakia went ahead with a scaled-down version. Hungary and Slovakia still argue over the issue.

East of the dam, just before the Danube turns south, lies an exceptionally scenic stretch, with the great cathedral at Esztergom rising majestically on a riverside bluff. Budapest itself, built on both sides of the Danube, is one of the river's greatest gems.

Downstream from Yugoslavia f especially in Romania, which has long been particularly dependent on river shipping f the pain from the blockage is immense. And bitterness over the indifference of Western Europe and the United States runs deep.

"Clearing the Danube is a matter of extreme importance for Romania," Mugur Isarescu, the country's prime minister, said recently, adding that the country's shipping concerns had lost $100 million in revenue and laid off most of their employees. On a visit to Washington in May, Isarescu pleaded for Western countries to separate the policy of sanctions against Yugoslavia from the need to clear wreckage from the river.

In eastern Romania, the Danube bends to the north, ultimately to touch the Ukrainian border.For goods headed to or from the Black Sea and beyond, the shortest shipping route is through a 48-kilometer canal that links the Danube to the Black Sea port of Constanta.

While most freight takes the Constanta canal, the river continues north to Galati, where it turns east again. In Galati, a key port and industrial center, and in Tulcea, the next major Danube town, Romania's generally severe unemployment has been worsened by shipping-related layoffs.

"Since the bombing, people in Tulcea have gotten bitter and they blame the Americans for not clearing the river," said Iom Savu, 42, a Tulcea taxi driver.

As its waters flow toward the Black Sea through the Danube, Delta's three main channels and a network of lakes and wetlands, the river slips back into a lost era.

The wetlands f with names like Stinking Marsh, Gypsy Gulf and Cuban Lagoon f have a rejuvenating effect on the river's polluted water and the area abounds with wildlife, especially birds. A cyanide spill from a Romanian gold-mining complex that contaminated tributaries of the Danube in January, leading to massive fish kills in Hungary and Yugoslavia, had no visible effect here.

Tourists, however, have been scared away from the entire Balkan region by last year's fighting, said Victor Iancu, president of S.C. Navrom-Delta, which operates passenger boats in the delta.

Iancu said that because the United States has "all this economic and military power," it "could have solved the Yugoslav problem much more easily and peacefully."