Among the many consequences of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one that has retained its urgency is the persistent issue of demining. In recent years, the presence of unexploded land mines on Bosnian territory has made the passage of migrants on the Balkan route potentially fatal, bringing the mine clearance process in the Balkans back to the attention of international public opinion.
The danger of mines doesn’t affect only Bosnia-Herzegovina. One of the territories still plagued by the persistence of UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) is Kosovo, where in 1999 NATO air forces made extensive use of cluster bombs: it is estimated that during the war in Kosovo, more than 1,300 cluster bombs containing nearly 300,000 individual explosive devices were dropped on the territory, many of which remain unexploded to this day, posing a constant danger, particularly to migrants and the inhabitants of rural areas.
In Bosnia, since 1996, great progress has been made through nationwide demining operations, with more than 78,000 mines found and neutralized. However, communities in both political entities, the Muslim/Croat Federation and Republika Srpska, remain affected by the problem of land mines to this day.
The latest reports from the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC) estimate the presence of more than 180,000 unexploded mines and report more than 600 deaths directly caused by them since 1996.
Some towns located on the border with Croatia are constantly threatened by the presence of mines, and many areas around the natural border of the Sava River remain dangerous.
On the issue of mine clearance at the local level, we met with the head of Civil Defense of the municipality of Gradiška, Slobodan Knezevic. “During the Bosnian War,” he explained, “Gradiška was on the main border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. As a result, both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines were placed on the coast of the Sava River and around the Gradiška area. Today, four areas around the city are still suspected of having mines.”
The dangerous areas around the Gradiška urban area are large, and they are located close to children’s playgrounds and volleyball courts where local youth go. Part of the coastal area of the Sava River has not yet been demined, but it is routinely used by fishermen and campers, with all the risks that come with that.
One of the difficulties of demining is the high cost per square meter and the lack of an adequate budget dedicated to this task.
In addition, it is difficult to determine the exact location of mines near the river, as seasonal flooding brings up unexploded mines from the bottom to the shore.
As a result, the task of identifying and reporting mines often falls to regular citizens. “Finding mines is a difficult issue in itself,” Slobodan Knezevic points out. “The surface must first be thoroughly examined and mines identified. Only then is it possible to go ahead with the clearing. In some areas, such as Sanskimost and Oshtaluka, it is not possible for us to work on mine detection. We can only take action when someone finds a mine and calls us.”
The local Civil Defense has partially relied on organizations that specialize in the issue of unexploded ordnance, both governmental and nongovernmental, but it needs help to come from the National Civil Defense. “It is a slow process, but it is happening,” Knezevic continues, “even though the recent pandemic has slowed down the demining process.”
The individual responsibility of citizens is still an essential element when it comes to clearing mines in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The demining process becomes especially complicated when civilians voluntarily decide to keep mines in their homes. These mines were acquired during the war and people never reported them to the police so they would be taken away.
“In this area alone,” Knezevic stresses, “about 4,000 mines have been confiscated from private homes where people had decided to keep them.”
Storing mines is illegal, which is another factor that has discouraged people from turning to the authorities to dispose of them in the past.
For this reason, the Civil Defense has implemented a program that allows people to call a toll-free number and report the presence of mines in their homes while remaining completely anonymous and safe from legal repercussions.
“We have tried in the past to implement awareness-raising campaigns through the media, urging people to report mines in their possession and emphasizing the danger connected to keeping weapons near one’s home,” Knezevic recounts. “However, these campaigns have not been as successful as hoped.”
In the end, the relationship of the younger generation to the issue of disarmament will prove crucial. Bosnian youth live in a world that still suffers from the effects of war, which is why they have grown up to value peace.