Minefield Mayhem

Fourteen years after the war ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mines continue to claim lives and cause serious injuries, and it would seem that the deminer’s job is never done, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.

“This is not earning for living, it is working for death,” said Habiba Omerdic, the mother of Senad Omerdic who was seriously injured during a recent operation to clear a field of anti-personnel mines leftover from the Bosnian 1992-1995 war. His colleague, Danir Delic, was killed.

Omerdic and Delic accidently tripped the mine in June while clearing a field near the town of Donji Vakuf in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both had completed training last year and were employed by a private demining company. Senad Omerdic’s mother was not made privy to the nature of her son’s employment.

“I learned [of my son’s accident] on the news. I would never have thought that he would be working on mine clearance, since we had relatives who were killed by mines during the war,” Habiba Omerdic told local media.

It is a thankless and dangerous job, but at least in this field, there will always be employment.

Hidden death traps

Since 1996, when the war ended, there have been 500 mine-related deaths in Bosnia and 1,667 mine-related injuries. Of those, 94 were deminers.

In 2008 alone, there were 40 mine-related accidents, 19 of them fatal. Most of the civilians killed and injured by mines were farmers and refugee returnees to rural areas.

Following the end of the war, international agencies initially estimated that there were more than 4,200 square kilometers of minefields in Bosnia and Herzegovina – meaning that some 8.2 percent of the country’s total territory was mined. According to available records at the time, there were nearly 20,000 minefields, which was considered to be approximately 50-60 percent of the real number.

In 2002, some six years after the war, the international community established a state-level body, the Mine Action Centre (BHMAC), comprised of former war military and intelligence personnel from all three sides. The organization succeeded UNMAC (the United Nations Mine Action Center) right after the war. At the beginning, BHMAC’s internal ethnic mix made work challenging, but over time it became a shining example of ethnic cooperation among the country’s state agencies.

“Unlike other state-level agencies, we are not burdened with ethnicity and politics. Our mission is clear, we are here to save lives and to make living possible, regardless of ethnicity,” Svjetlana Trifkovic, BHMAC spokesperson, told ISN Security Watch.

BHMAC estimates that some 220,000 mines and other explosive ordnance remain today, 14 years after the war ended, with some 3.5 percent of Bosnia’s territory estimated to be littered with landmines. Rough estimates say that some 900,000 Bosnian citizens live on land containing mines in more than 1,600 communities.

Optimistic estimates hold that Bosnia will need at least 10 years and €400 million ($588 million) to clear the remaining mines.

This statistic ranks Bosnia among the most dangerous in terms of mines worldwide, hindering both safety and economic development. The Bosnian government is hoping that one-third of the money would come from donors – mainly the governments of the US, Canada, Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden. The rest of the money would come from the Bosnian government or through various loans.

Front line future

Mines were placed by warring parties primarily between confrontation lines, in front of strategic facilities under the control of warring parties, such as military barracks, but also near non-strategic sites, with civilian casualties in mind.

Identifying the minefields is very complicated, since most are not correctly documented or the records have been lost, or even intentionally destroyed. Though an agreement on document exchanges between the warring sides exists, the real plans of minefields were unknown.

An additional problem is that minefields most often have unknown patterns, with individually placed mines or mine groups in low-density concentrations across broader areas.

According to Trifkovic, it was not difficult for BHMAC to clear the minefields on known frontlines, but it becomes very challenging to deal with mines planted by individuals that do not exist on any maps.

One deminer who spoke to ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity said that warring armies and individuals used a great deal of imagination when planting mines, with the objective of killing civilians, and ensuring that they would be difficult to discover after the war.

“For instance, when someone was forced to leave his home, he would plant mines in and around his house. We also found mines planted in and around mass graves, planted on the trees, in wells, in barns […] They preferred to use Yugoslav army-made MRUD mines, which can kill from a distance of 50 meters and injure from up to 100 meters,” he said.

Risky ignorance

Though the Bosnian government and international organizations have spent a lot of money and time educating Bosnian citizens on mine risk awareness, Trifkovic said that she could not label citizens as cooperative.

Among a number of problems experienced by deminers, citizens steal mine warning signs for souvenirs, as well as mine scene tape demarcating minefield borders, which rural inhabitants use to mark off their own property. And, most dangerously, rather than calling in deminers when they come across mines, they attempt to dispose of them on their own.

BHMAC reported an increase in mine-related incidents from 2006 to 2008, and most of the victims are returnees to rural areas and farmers.

“People are walking about more freely now, unlike in the first years after the war, when they were practically only using cemented roads and paths. Now we have tourists, adventurers, mountain hikers, who believe that enough time has passed, but most of the mines planted here can be active forever,” Trifkovic said.

Other ex-Yugoslav republics also have problems with mines left over from war in the 1990s. Landmines in Croatia have killed 500 and injured 1,500 more since the end of the war. Croatia has 1,000 square kilometers of suspected minefields still waiting to be cleared – an effort which could take another 50 years at the current pace. In Kosovo, over 100 minefields and clusters of bombs remain to be cleared.

Source: isn.ethz.ch

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