Making Kosovo safe from thousands of land mines

Deminers prioritize locations. Fear is as detrimental as the bombs themselves.

The man in the orange jumpsuit and light-blue flak jacket crouches by the side of the road, deftly turning over earth with a small spade. Although his work is extremely dangerous, he moves confidently, creating a dirt path leading up the overgrown embankment.

Nearby this country lane in southern Kosovo, an international aid organization recently discovered the body of a person who they suspect was the victim of a land mine. Now a five-person team from the mine-clearance organization Help establishes a safe path so that family members can recover the body.

After more than a year of guerrilla warfare and nearly three months of NATO airstrikes, Kosovo is littered with mines and unexploded bombs. As many as 20,000 unexploded cluster bombs, by UN estimates, may be scattered across the Serbian province, but because their failure rate is classified, exact numbers are hard to come by. Booby traps and nuisance mines - unmarked mines deliberately placed in houses and gardens - are similarly difficult to quantify.

Often the fear of mines can be as detrimental as their actual existence, since a perceived threat limits people's movements as much as a real one. Nuisance mines are used solely as an instrument to terrorize the civilian population.

"If only three nuisance mines are found in a village, they may be the only three mines there," says John Flanagan, head of the United Nations Mine Action Service in Kosovo. "But you can spend weeks looking for mines that may or may not be there."

Still, says Mr. Flanagan, a New Zealand Army officer, "I don't think [the job] is bigger in scope than we expected."

The mine-clearing project is in the initial assessment phase. "Right now it's not practical for classical mine clearance," says Alan Sutcliffe, Help's program coordinator in Kosovo. "At the moment we're doing emergency relief and information gathering."

The Yugoslav Army, which completed its withdrawal from Kosovo three weeks ago, has provided KFOR peacekeepers with some 400 maps marking defensive minefields. The ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has likewise volunteered information on mines it laid, and NATO has come forward with locations it targeted during its air campaign over Yugoslavia.

The main purpose of the assessment phase is to prioritize locations for mine clearance. By the end of July, Flanagan expects 35 mine-clearance teams, including 12 teams equipped with mine-detecting dogs. Then the emergency phase will begin, in which deminers will open access to more remote villages and make homes safe for winter.

Since the arrival of KFOR, the UN reports at least 97 deaths and injuries related to mines and unexploded ordnance.

Unlike other demining efforts, such as in Cambodia or Bosnia, where the UN directly ran mine-clearing operations, the UN Mines Action Center in Kosovo will subcontract out tasks to demining agencies. Until local staff can be trained, experienced deminers from as far away as Cambodia and Zimbabwe will assist with the work.

Out in the field near Kacanik, the Help team consists of deminers from Bosnia. Since peace came to that country nearly four years ago, an indigenous staff has been trained to tackle the very serious mine problem there, the result of three years of heavy fighting the likes of which Kosovo never saw.

"You will never clear a country of all mines. It's a virtual impossibility," says Rich Schmidt from Help in Bosnia.

"But once the bulk of the work is done here, we'll still be doing mine clearance in Bosnia for years to come."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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