Death’s Seeds

Landmines continues to maim and harm long after war is over


The Balkan war that fragmented Yugoslavia and left more than 100,000 people dead in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia ended nine years ago, yet its legacy persists. During a recent cycling tour through the Balkans, I frequently swerved around craters in the pavement where grenades had done their work. I saw bullet holes in abandoned cement structures. Vicious political slogans in heavy graffiti dated 1990 were still not painted over. And while these relics were merely novel as historical paraphernalia—hardly dangerous—I learned in Bosnia-Herzegovina that the war is still very much alive, lurking dormant underfoot. One evening in October as I rolled past a scrubby field of shrubs, looking for a place to camp, I saw eyeing me from the roadside ditch the image of a white skull, backed by red, and captioned with the chilling word “Mines.”

When I returned home, I found a world of information. Throughout the Balkans, activists have identified the sites in which anti-personnel landmines were placed during the war, and thousands of warning signs now stand conspicuously throughout war-scarred regions. A portion of these fields—20 percent in Croatia, for example—have been carefully groomed by trained experts with specialized machinery and officially cleared.

De-mining efforts, however, advance slowly and at great cost. Locally, Roots of Peace, a nonprofit based in San Rafael, has supported the Croatian mine-removal efforts. Founded in 1997, Roots of Peace has generated proceeds for use in de-mining work—including training experts and dogs, acquiring metal detectors and other specialized gear, and utilizing explosives to detonate the devices from a safe distance—and through its “Mines to Vines” project is both helping to clear former vineyards of mines and restore these agricultural lands to their prewar conditions. The esteemed Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich, a Croatian native, has contributed $50,000 to Roots of Peace’s effort.

Perhaps a half-million mines remain buried in the Balkans, and their removal is extremely costly and dangerous. According to a Nov. 12 report by Landmine Monitor, a research program based in Canada, 954 square kilometers remain “contaminated,” and in 2008 just 12 square kilometers were cleared at a cost of more than $50 million, most of which was supplied by national sources.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the landmine problem is roughly twice as severe; 1,683 square kilometers remain contaminated, and in 2008 just three square kilometers were cleared at a cost of over $40 million. As in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 2009 clearance goal has been set back by 10 years, to March 2019.

Albania has actually beaten its landmine clearance deadline of August 2010. In late October, 2009 Tony Connell and his team of six de-miners, working on their hands and knees, cleared the last of the small mountainous nation’s known minefields, which had been seeded by Serb paramilitaries during the Kosovo War.

“But the thing with landmines is it’s almost impossible to tell that 100 percent of mines in a region are ever gone,” says Connell, program manager with Dan Church Aid, an international NGO that trains de-miners and conducts operations around the world. Connell has participated in de-mining projects for 15 years, and in northern Iraq has encountered some minefields eight miles long riddled with millions of live explosives.

To successfully clear a minefield, de-miners must follow a strict protocol, Connell explains. They must first locate its approximate boundaries by speaking with locals, consulting ex-soldiers and viewing military maps that Connells says Serb forces, for the most part, have declined to share since the Kosovo War, between Albania and Serbia. Goat and cow corpses also frequently tip off minefield surveyors.

The second step is the “technical survey,” in which de-miners use metal detectors to determine the pattern by which the mines were set. “They might be in a straight line or in a zigzag pattern,” Connell says. “They might be two meters apart or 30 centimeters apart.”

De-miners locate each device as they crawl slowly forward, and rig it with explosives. The work is tedious, each person clearing no more than 20 square meters per day, one centimeter at a time. De-miners stand 100 to 500 meters away as the mines are detonated, says Connell, who personally saw the destruction of more than 8,000 mines in Albania between 2002 and 2009.

The PROM-1 mine is among the most feared types. When triggered, it springs a meter into the air before detonating, inflicting serious face and torso wounds. But in Albania, Connell and his team found mostly “toe-poppers,” small devices that detonate under roughly five pounds of pressure and are intended to take off no more than a person’s foot. Many mines, in fact, are designed only to maim, not kill, under the premise that wounded soldiers impart greater hardship upon comrades, who must carry them to safety.

Landmines are notoriously ineffective as weapons of war. Most landmine casualties occur post-conflict, and statistics from Landmine Monitor show that 70 to 85 percent of landmine casualties are civilians.

A 1996 report from the International Committee of the Red Cross recognized that anti-personnel landmines “have little or no effect on the outcome of hostilities.” Perhaps the leading problem with landmines is their longevity; they may remain live and active for many decades. Even relatively primitive mines planted during World War I are still producing casualties in parts of Europe and North Africa; in 2009, Tony Connell and his team found live landmines in Albania remaining from World War II.

First used as long ago as the American Civil War, landmines are now devastatingly cheap to build. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a global network of 70 nations, production costs can run as low $3 per mine, while clearing them runs an average of $1,000 per device. Costs mount through the training of mine-sniffing dogs, hiring personnel, acquiring metal detectors and utilizing explosives to destroy them in post-conflict operations that persist for years.

The global effort to create a world free of landmines is accelerating. The Mine Ban Treaty marked a dramatic step forward. At a summit in Ottawa, Canada, on Dec. 3, 1997, 122 nations signed the agreement, and two years later its mandates began to take effect. Today, 156 nations worldwide, including every nation in Europe barring Russia, have agreed to destroy their own stockpiled mine arsenals within four years of signing and clear their own lands or territories of landmines within 10 years.

But in Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to a June 2009 report from the Bosnia-Herzegovina Mine Action Center, 220,000 landmines remain unearthed. Casualties since 1992 number in the thousands, though exact counts vary. These accidents have left a sizeable demographic of handicapped survivors, says Ramiz Becirovic, who works with Landmine Survivors Network in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a nonprofit that aids survivors in reentering society as productive members.

Becirovic says that more than 7,000 people in Bosnia-Herzegovina have stepped on a landmine and survived; in 2008, there were 39 injuries—19 of them resulting in deaths—up from 30 total the year prior. In 2008, Croatia had nine casualties—three people killed—up from eight in 2007.

While most governments in the world are committed to eliminating the weapons from the earth, the United States remains among the 37 nations which have declined to sign the Ottawa Treaty. Though President Clinton announced his firm intention in 1997 that the United States would become a signatory, it never happened. George W. Bush reneged on the commitment and determined in 2004 not to sign the treaty.

Accordingly, the task of landmine clearance falls that much more on NGOs and such nonprofits as Roots of Peace, which through a partnership with the University of Zadar has helped plant 25,000 grapevines and 12,500 apple trees on Croatian lands previously planted with mines.

Roots of Peace founder Heidi Kuhn recalls visiting Croatia in 2000 and seeing children leashed to trees and allowed to play in a tight radius of 10 feet. At the time, some 1.2 million mines remained in the nation’s soil. In some places, caution has been cast aside by necessity as many Balkans resume their prewar habits. Firewood cutters, driven by economic desperation, walk into mine-riddled forests and constitute a sizeable portion of the nation’s casualties.

In western Croatia, I met a man who told me, his wife and daughter at his side, that each fall he walks into documented minefields to hunt birds where his father and grandfather had before him. He shrugged and said uncertainly, “No problem. There is no problem.”

Yet the problem is undeniably severe. According to one estimate, 70 nations are currently home to 70 million buried landmines, weapons that do most of their damage in times of peace.

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