Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is ranked among the world’s most dangerous countries in terms of landmines, according to the Bosnian Mine Action Centre (BHMAC). The situation presents a lingering problem that continues to hinder safety and economic development.
In mid-March, two men were killed near the northern town of Lukavac in a minefield planted two decades ago.
The victims, Vahidin Hrustic and Mersid Memisevic, both in their 20s from a village near Srebrenica, entered a marked minefield in search of wood to sell to support their families.
According to local authorities, the two had entered the minefield in an area that had been cleared last year, but as they progressed through the field, ignored markers noting the contaminated area.
“These deaths, and many more, are related to civilians ignoring our warnings about existing minefields. Seventeen years after the war, people are walking about it more freely now,” said Svjetlana Luledzija, spokesperson of the Bosnian Mine Action Centre (BHMAC), the state body established after the war and comprised of former war military and intelligence personnel from all three sides.
“But the bottom line is that people are deliberately risking their lives to secure income for their families,” Luledzija told SETimes.
Since the end of the war, there have been nearly 600 mine-related deaths and 1,700 mine-related injuries in BIH. Of those, 94 were those working on mine removal, but the majority of victims have been civilians, primarily farmers and refugees returning to rural areas.
Bosnian authorities estimated that there were more than 4,200 square kilometers of minefields during the war — 8.2% of the country’s total territory.
After a surge of mine removal efforts, an estimated 220,000 mines and other explosive ordnance remain, covering 3.5% of the country’s territory, BHMAC said.Rough calculations by the centre show that 900,000 Bosnians live on land containing mines in more than 1,600 communities.
In 1997, Sefko Ramic was one of the first returnees to the rural areas around Srebrenica. Though his house was not directly on the frontline, the structure was nearly devastated. While clearing the rubble inside, Ramic activated a hand grenade that had been placed under a bed.
“I assume that the grenade was put there by the Bosnian Serb Army. I was only mildly injured. My neighbours — who returned later — told me they had also found mines and explosives in their houses and yards,” Ramic told SETimes.
While original estimates held that post-war BiH had nearly 20,000 separate minefields, mind-clearing experts say that probably only represents half of the real number. Of those, Luledzija said, at least 40% are located in areas where there was no direct armed conflict.
“Deminers found mines planted in and around mass graves, in trees, in wells, barns […] some were also protecting their property by placing mines around their houses,” Luledzija explained.
In 2009, Bosnian authorities adopted a strategy for clearing the country’s mines by 2019.
However, due a lack of funding, the deadline has already been postponed to 2024.
BHMAC requires 40m euros annually for its operations. A vast majority of the money comes from donors, primarily the governments of the US, Japan, Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden.
With BHMAC’s assistance, several international agencies are testing new technologies for locating minefields using space-based resources.
One of those projects, financed by the European Space Agency, involves the use of drones to obtain thermal high resolution images of a suspected minefield. If the project is a success, it would be a breakthrough in mine clearance.
“Even though these projects are expensive, in the end they would make the search for mines much cheaper and bring the risk to a minimum,” Luledzija said.
BiH is not the only country with mines left over from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.Landmines in Croatia have killed 500 and injured 1,500 others since the end of the war. Croatia still has roughly 850 square kilometers of suspected minefields waiting to be cleared — an effort which could take another 50 years at the current pace.
According to the Croatian Mine Action Centre, 102 towns and municipalities are affected by mines. Of that number, nearly 30% are in agricultural areas, along the wartime frontlines.
In Kosovo, the problem is not with minefields, but rather with left over cluster munitions used by the Serbian armed forces in 1998–1999 and by NATO in 1999. NATO forces dropped 1,392 bombs, containing 295,700 cluster sub-munitions. As much as 20% of those munitions failed to explode.
Though UN and Kosovo authorities claim that most of the mines were cleared by 2002, international agencies working on demining there say that at least 150 sites remain contaminated.
This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.