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Spec. Mark Miller stands guard at the entrance of a railroad tunnel in Bosnia and Herzegovina that is being cleared of mines and booby traps.

Spec. Mark Miller stands guard at the entrance of a railroad tunnel in Bosnia and Herzegovina that is being cleared of mines and booby traps. (Chuck Gohl/Stars and Stripes)

KRIZEVICI, Bosnia and Herzegovina — They linger at the mouth of the tunnel, occasionally venturing 100, 200, even 300 yards into the cool, damp darkness before retreating from the mysteries that lie beyond.

Some believe the 2.5-mile railroad tunnel contains chemical weapons, while others suspect it is the site of mass graves.

Even those who dismiss both theories acknowledge that the tunnel — which lies between Tuzla and Zvornik, two major Bosnian cities on opposite sides of the former line of confrontation — is probably mined or booby-trapped.

"Mystery leads the imagination to anything," said U.S. Amy Lt. James Wells, whose men have been monitoring the eastern entrance of the tunnel for so long they've come to think of it as their own.

No one has traversed the tunnel since the U.S. deployment to Bosnia began in December. Back then, American troops noticed there were never any tracks in the snow — not even animal tracks — leading into the tunnel in Bosnian-Serbian territory.

So for at least the last six months, this important link between two halves of a divided country has remained broken, precluding rail traffic from traversing the zone of separation.

Faction leaders have warned Americans that the tunnel, which changed hands several times during the 3½-ear Bosnian civil war, may hold lethal dangers to those who venture inside.

So when a Norwegian mine-clearing team — accompanied by investigators from the International War Crimes Tribunal, who are searching for mass graves —-entered the western end or the tunnel late last week, the Americans at the eastern end did not expect to see them emerge anytime soon.

Clearing this tunnel will probably take weeks, not days, especially in the darkness created when the factions long ago axed the thick electric cables that had supplied light to the tunnel.

So Wells and his men wait at the mouth, half expecting to hear an explosion shatter the stillness of the afternoon, The half-dozen soldiers don't mind the duty, because it brings them close to the cool breezes that emanate from the tunnel, offsetting the heat of the afternoon sun.

Sometimes, driven by heat or boredom or just plain curiosity, the soldiers venture inside the tunnel, careful to step on the relatively new concrete ties that support the track, rusted now from lack of use.

As they pick their way into this 25-foot-high, horseshoe-shaped structure, the temperature gradually drops by 30 degrees, and ground moisture trickles down from the waffle-patterned stones in the arched ceiling, creating an eerie, indoor rain.

The troops never go more than a few hundred yards, because by then their flashlights are no match for the daunting darkness that envelops everything. The feeble beams barely illuminate what appears to be the beginning of a gradual curve in the distance.

What if the Norwegians strike a mine while the Americans are inside? Will the blast blow out their eardrums? What if a cache of chemical weapons is detonated? Will the Americans be engulfed by a toxic wind before they can strap on their gas masks?

Such thoughts tend to turn the troops around and send them back to the sunlight, where they discuss the best methods of clearing the tunnel. Some say it should be cleared by the factions themselves, who could send in groups of men from both sides to meet in the middle.

"It'd be great to get this open, because once you get through here you can cross the Drina River an Zvornik and then on to Belgrade," said 1st Sgt. Joe Kindel. "It would. open up this line to all of Europe for fuel transport and whatever.

"To me, this rail line will be vital to the economy if they get this country squared away," Kindel said. "'But right now it's just part of the infrastructure that's not operating — like everything else."

And it will remain that way until the tunnel gives up its dark secrets. Kindel believes the tunnel, carved into a concrete wall in a grass-covered hillside, probably contains a whole lot o of nothing.

But others aren't so willing to ignore the stories, some of which have come through their own commands, about mines, chemical weapons and mass graves.

"No one really knows what's in there," Wells said. "But higher-ups get paid to be suspicious."

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