NEWS

How the sad legacy of land mines continues to haunt the Balkans

It's been more than two decades since the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina ended, but Plamenko Priganica knows the enemy still lurks in the Majevica hills near his home in Tuzla.


Priganica is one of the thousands to have become a victim of land mines planted during the 1992-95 conflict that tore the country -- and the former Yugoslavia -- apart at its ethnic seams.

"The killer is still waiting 25 years after the war," the 57-year-old, who lost his left leg below the knee, told RFE/RL from his home.

The Bosnian government's Mine Action Strategy for 2009-19 was supposed to put an end to the fears of Priganica and the half a million other Bosnians who live in or around areas where leftover mines remain. Instead, the fields and forests where many still scavenge for wild strawberries and mushrooms are still littered with explosives.

The 2019 target set out in the strategy for clearing all remaining ordnance will be missed by several years, according to the Bosnia-Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC), amid a funding shortfall and political inaction.

Photo: Wikipedia/Werner Anderson of Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian Peoples Aid

By 2013, the center estimates that less than half of the funding needed for projects was realized, a percentage that has fallen since then. While part of the problem, BHMAC says, is a decrease in donor funding, the greater issue is with government contributions to the program.

"In looking at the 2009-19 strategy, we are lagging behind by about four years. There is a new strategy and under this strategy Bosnia and Herzegovina will be clean from mines by 2025," says Miodrag Gajic, an information officer at the center.

BHMAC estimates that while around 2,900 square kilometers of land have been cleared of explosive materials, just over 1,000 square kilometers of Bosnia -- or about 2.2 percent of the country -- is still polluted by mines. Nearly 600 people have been killed by mines or unexploded bombs since the war ended and more than 1,100 others have been injured, according to the center.

The highest-risk zones are often forests where the front lines that separated warring factions once ran. These include municipalities such as Velika Kladusa, Orasje, and Doboj.

In March, a farmer in Tulic, near the city of Tuzla, was dragging firewood from a forest when his tractor hit a mine. The blast killed the driver.

Nizam Cancar, a deminer who lost his leg to an explosive device in 1994 during the war, says it's easy for such accidents to happen.

Years of harsh weather conditions have muddled what few maps authorities have of mined areas. Devices, he says, can shift under such conditions, making a dangerous situation even more treacherous.

"It's very difficult to find them. If you put them in a particular place 20 years ago, they are no longer there. It could move a meter or two in any direction," he says.

The problem of land mines in Bosnia once attracted international attention.

This past summer marked the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's visit to Bosnia as part of her crusade against land mines. In her last overseas trip before she died in a Paris car crash in 1997, Diana met with victims in the small village of Dobrnja, near Tuzla.

One of those Diana met was Mirzeta Gabeljic.

In 1997, Gabeljic was a 15-year-old schoolgirl returning home when she stepped on a land mine. The blast took her right leg below the knee.

Like many victims, she has struggled since her accident, given the limited resources available from the state for amputees, although now she is looking to start the country's first sitting volleyball club for women.

According to Priganica, the provision of orthopedic supplies have not improved in the 25 years since the war.

"They can be purchased abroad, but they are very expensive," he says.

Adding to the problem is that the large number of humanitarian organizations that worked here after the war have left, he claims, "because the focus of their interest has moved somewhere else."

Bosnia emerged from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia as Europe's poorest country, with gross domestic product per capita at 28 percent of the European average. Unemployment is high and corruption rampant, stunting the development of social services for large swaths of the country.

Considering the tough economic times Bosnia currently faces, BHMAC's Gajic hopes that help from other countries will once again increase.

Members of the Kosovo Police Bomb Squad prepare their ordnance for a demolition range in Orahovac, Kosovo, April 4. The demolition was part of the International Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action Day, this day represented the start of the humanitarian demining Season in Kosovo. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Rachael Jeffcoat, 20th Public Affairs Detachment)

"Within our new strategy, we plan to have a donor conference in mid-November. This is a date where I hope we will have more bountiful donor funds," he says.

Time is also of the essence for a task that is painstakingly slow.

Deminers try to work eight-hour shifts, but the task is so intense and angst-ridden that they must take breaks every 30 minutes to remain focused.

Squatting and searching the ground while wearing protective suits that can weigh up to 25 kilograms, deminers probe about 2,500 times just to check just 1 square meter of ground. On a good day, they will cover 50 square meters, according to Nail Hujic, a technical director at INTERSOS, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization.

The deminers, he says, must constantly assess the type of munition they may have to deal with, how it is placed in the ground, and even the possibility of deliberate traps laid by whoever planted the land mine.

"The result of all this, as well as of inadequate equipment and mental and physical fatigue among deminers, is frequent accidents," Hujic says. "Unfortunately, we have to say that accidents are common in this line of work. They usually leave deminers severely physically disabled, although fatalities are less frequent."

Even if foreign donors pony up the funds needed to jump-start the clearing program, the money will come too late for Asim Kudra, who lost his uncle to a land mine when he returned home after the war to Zlatiste, near Sarajevo.

Kudra says the area was demined, but residents still live in fear.

"You cannot say that it is safe for certain, because it isn't," he says.

China is stealing American technology to grow its sub fleet

China has made marked advancements in its undersea-warfare capabilities and is using stolen US technology to further that progress, US Navy Adm. Philip Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 17, 2018.

Davidson, who was before the committee as the nominee to lead US Pacific Command, told senators in written testimony that while the US has a "significant asymmetric advantage in undersea warfare," the Chinese navy "is making progress" and that Beijing "has identified undersea warfare as a priority, both for increasing their own capabilities as well as challenging ours."

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
International

This is what makes SAS selection the toughest in the world

The Special Air Service is the longest active special missions unit in existence and has remained one of the best. Staffed with the toughest and most resourceful enlisted and commissioned soldiers the United Kingdom has to offer, the SAS only accepts the cream of the crop. Of all candidates who try to earn the coveted beige beret and the title of "Blade," only the very best make it through.

Keep reading... Show less
History

6 reasons why being a Roman Legionnaire would suck

The Roman Empire stretched from modern-day Syria to modern-day Spain. To maintain that amount of real estate, you have to have an amazing military to protect it. The Roman Legion was one such force.

But every military that has made its mark on history was notorious for rigorous training and extremely harsh conditions that make today's toughest Special Operations training look like Air Force boot camp. Here's why, in reality, being a Roman Legionnaire would've sucked.

Keep reading... Show less

The unbelievable way President Trump cut to the chase with Israel

President Donald Trump reportedly put a blunt question to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by asking if the leader of the Jewish state genuinely wanted peace.

Axios' Jonathan Swan reported that, in a phone call with Netanyahu in 2017, Trump shocked his aides by getting straight to the point and pressing the Israeli leader on making a deal with Palestine.

Keep reading... Show less

The Air Force has 'natural' explanations for all these UFO sightings

From 1947 to 1970, the United States Air Force conducted investigations into the increasing number of unidentified flying object (UFO) sightings throughout the United States. The purpose of the investigations was to assess the nature of these sightings and determine if they posed any potential threat to the U.S.

Three successive projects were created to carry out these investigations: Sign, Grudge, and Blue Book.

Keep reading... Show less

How to properly seal a gas mask without shaving your beard

Warfighters have charged into battle throughout history with fully bearded chins. Sadly, the need to survival chemical weapons attacks has overshadowed the need to keep one's chin beautiful.

Today, the most widely stated reason for requiring troops to keep a clean-shaven face is because facial hair prevents the proper sealing of a gas mask. Many studies and personnel trials have proven this true time and time again. That's right, folks. Chemical weapons are so evil that they've even killed beards.

Keep reading... Show less
History

This is why some Civil War battles have two names

The Battle of Antietam is also known as Sharpsburg. Bull Run is also called Manassas. Shiloh is also Pittsburg Landing. Some of these may be familiar to you, some of them may sound weird. But there is a reason for it, and it's mainly because of the Soldiers who fought the War Between the States.

Keep reading... Show less