William J. Kole / Associated Press – 2008-12-31 13:19:03
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (December 19, 2008) — Muriz Jukic keeps reliving the day last winter when his tractor hit a land mine, unleashing shrapnel that tore one of his eyes from its socket and left him stumbling and screaming.
“I dream about that flash, and I wake up soaked in sweat,” says Jukic, 43, who was injured while gathering firewood near his home in the northeastern Bosnia village of Vitinica.
Scores of victims
Thirteen years after Bosnia’s 1992-95 war ended, mines are still claiming scores of victims. A closer look by the Associated Press shows the problem is not that officials don’t know where most of the explosives are buried. It’s that they just can’t seem to scrape together enough cash to get them out of the ground.
Under an international treaty, Bosnia was supposed to be mine-free by March 2009. Instead, the Balkan country has quietly obtained another decade to clear 220,000 remaining mines and other unexploded ordnance that pose a hidden menace to schoolchildren, farmers, hunters, hikers and woodsmen.
Authorities in Europe’s most mine-infested nation acknowledge that more than 600 square miles of territory – an area larger than Los Angeles – is still riddled.
Take all the former front lines where most of the mines lurk, lay them end to end, and you would have a belt stretching 8,700 miles. The danger zone would reach more than a third of the way around the Earth, or cover at least two Great Walls of China.
Since the war ended, mines have claimed 1,665 victims, including 487 fatalities. So far this year, 19 people were killed and 18 others maimed.
Eliminating the threat “is not the impossible task we once thought it would be,” says Sylvie Brigot, executive director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in Geneva. “It’s possible to get rid of all these mines, provided there’s a plan in place so funding is secured.”
But an AP review of documents, and interviews with senior officials coordinating the effort, found that Bosnia is raising only about a third of the $50 million a year that Prime Minister Nikola Spiric says his impoverished nation needs to rid itself of mines by 2019, the new deadline.
For 2008, $18.4 million was raised for mine clearance in Bosnia. Though that’s up from $14.9 million in 2007, it still falls far short of what experts say is needed.
Cost of scanning
It costs $2.50 to scan a square yard of suspicious territory – more than the going price for some land. That sounds cheap until you consider the vast areas of Bosnia that must be poked and prodded to ensure they’re safe. All told, locating and removing a single mine costs $10,000.
Unlike many other crisis areas worldwide – where soldiers laid the mines and military records detail where they’re buried – Bosnia must also grapple with “guerrilla minefields” where records are more sketchy, says Ahdin Orahovac, deputy director of the national Mine Action Center.
A typical record, he says, reads like this: “3 mines, 3 yards from the apple tree.” But when deminers scout for the spot, what was an orchard is now a forest, “and all we know is that somewhere there are three mines.”
“It’s the biggest problem in the world,” says Orahovac, pointing to a large map covered with clusters of colored dots.
Clusters of red dots
Blue marks places that have been cleared. Red marks areas still mined. And there’s a lot of red.
Salih Hadzic is among the intrepid deminers working to change that. Clad in a flak vest, a helmet with a protective visor and green cotton pants stained with soil, he sweeps a squawking metal detector over a hillside on the outskirts of Sarajevo.
Here, within view of the capital’s office buildings and mosques, deminers recently unearthed one of the deadliest types of mine: a PROM, designed to jump a few feet in the air before exploding and sending fragments that kill everything in a 50-yard radius.
“I have to concentrate. If I let my mind wander, it could be fatal,” says Hadzic, who’s forbidden to drink alcohol, has a 10 p.m. bedtime and works in painstakingly slow 30-minute intervals with mandatory breaks.
“But when I go home after work,” he says, “I know I’ve conquered another couple of square yards where children can play and no one’s going to get hurt or killed.”
Underscoring how mines indiscriminately claim lives: On the same day in March that Spiric announced a campaign to raise more foreign donations, two deminers were killed and a third critically injured trying to clear a field.
Sarajevo, which hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, made a halfhearted bid for the 2010 Games. It was eliminated largely because the ski slopes on Mount Igman and bobsled run on Mount Trebevic are still heavily mined.
That underscores how mines hamper work to expand agriculture, build highways, schools, housing and factories, and lure tourists.
“I don’t think there’s any question that it’s hindered development,” says David Rowe, a mine expert with the U.N. Development Program.
Mines complicate efforts to coax refugees back into their prewar homes and recover remains from mass graves, many of which were booby-trapped.
They kill animals, too, and Orahovac says exploding sheep can serve as a low-tech detection system for farmers in remote regions.
Fourteen other countries also got 10-year extensions of their obligations under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, some with mines or ordnance dating to World War II: Britain, Chad, Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, Jordan, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Senegal, Thailand, Venezuela, Yemen and Zimbabwe.
Donors, meanwhile, are shifting resources to new crisis areas in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Interest in this region is quickly fading,” says Sabina Beber Bostjancic, head of international relations at the International Trust Fund for Demining and Mine Victims Assistance in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which raises cash for the Bosnian effort.
Bostjancic says Bosnia’s government plans to chip in $20 million for demining in 2009. But it contributed only $2.4 million this year, and many are skeptical.
Most are in rural areas
There’s been progress: Since demining began in 1996, an estimated 750,000 mines have been cleared, and most of those that remain are in rural areas.
But Bosnians are poor, and as winter approaches, many will venture into forests to gather firewood – a potentially deadly chore.
Ismihana Jukic, the wife of the man blinded in one eye this time last year, says she knew a mine got him the instant a boom echoed across the valley. “I dropped the potatoes I had in my hand, and I ran down the road,” she recalls, sobbing.
These days, her husband seldom ventures off asphalt.
“People had gone down that path before,” he says. “That mine seemed to be waiting for me.”
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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