A Diary of Destruction
Oren J. Schlein, U.N. Association of the United States
Issue 4.1 | February 2000 | Information in this issue may be outdated. Click here to link to the most recent issue.
the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, Croat, Muslim and Serb forces deployed
between 600,000 and one million anti-personnel landmines. This can seem
a meaningless figure until you see the effects of both exploded and unexploded
landmines. Driving into town from the Sarajevo airport, I witnessed the
striking contrast between the beauty of the hills surrounding the city
and the pockmarked buildings damaged by relentless shelling during the
Bosnia and Herzegovina. People still try to cultivate their fields and
gardens despite the landmines. Photo c/o UNA/USA/Oren Schlein
The old town
has been largely restored to its historical charm, while the rest of the city
and outlying areas continue to exhibit the awful blemishes of war. I had come
to Bosnia to meet with representatives from the local mine action centers,
to discuss the progress of the Adopt-A-Minefield Program in Bosnia and
to visit several mined areas.
After a day's
orientation in Sarajevo, I headed north with my Bosnian driver to the city
of Doboj, about 75 miles away. The trip took approximately two hours, through
winding roads along the Bosna River. As we approached Doboj, we crossed the
river, which skirts the southern edge of the city and which demarcated the
confrontation line during the war. The main bridge leading to town had been
destroyed and was replaced by a makeshift bridge constructed by SFOR; the
NATO-led Stabilization Force deployed to maintain the peace in Bosnia. These
makeshift bridges dot the entire country.
We visited a
village on the outskirts of Doboj called Makljenovac, a small community with
a few dozen houses built on a hill overlooking the Bosna River on one side
and the city of Doboj on the other side. The area was the site of intensive
fighting between Serb and Muslim forces during the war, which tore this Serb
and Muslim community apart. Makljenovac is typical of many Bosnian communities
that have been affected by landmines. Most of the homes and buildings have
been damaged or destroyed, large tracts of land have been mined, and the majority
of the villagers live as refugees elsewhere in Bosnia and in neighboring Serbia.
The village has received some international funding to aid the demining and
reconstruction effort. Like much of Bosnia, however, there has not been enough
funding to adequately restore the community.
primary school is located at the highest point in the village and was extensively
shelled during the war. The playground and surrounding area are now littered
with landmines. The school is one of 10 sites in Bosnia that have been adopted
by Adopt-A-Minefield sponsors who have raised funds to remove landmines
in mine-affected communities. The village was eerily quiet and desolate when
we visited it. A handful of villagers returned after the war and have done
their best to reclaim their lives. A lucky few have been able to repair their
homes to a livable state, largely with the assistance of the Office of the
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has also cleared small tracts of
agricultural land for use by the villagers.
Makljenovac, we visited the small town of Skipovac, a farming community 30
kilometers from Doboj. Skipovac is a tranquil village along the former confrontation
line. A few dozen houses line the main road through the town. Most of these
homes are deserted, as are the local schoolhouse, the post office and the
general store. Skipovac is heavily contaminated with mines nearly all
the agricultural land in the village is unusable. Only a handful of residents
stayed through the war. Some villagers have since returned, but life is difficult.
The few children that live in the village have to walk 30 minutes each way
to school in the adjoining village of Sjenina Rijeka and both sides of the
road on which they travel is heavily contaminated with mines. The villagers
live in constant fear that one of the children will inadvertently activate
a fragmentation mine.
suffers the fate of many Bosnian towns. It is isolated and largely dependent
on itself for food production. The presence of mines, however, makes it
extremely dangerous to cultivate land. While the majority have heeded
the warnings of authorities and not done so, some villagers, including
an elderly couple who remained during the war, have decided that the need
to grow food to survive outweighs all risks. The villagers of Skipovac
have been lucky, but every so often in Bosnia, there is an ill-fated attempt
to cultivate land that results in death or injury.
Bosnia and Hergovina. Photo c/o UNA-USA/Oren Schlein
My next two days
in Bosnia included visits to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre
(BHMAC) in Sarajevo and the two entity mine action centers in the Muslim/Croat
Federation and the Serb Republic. The entity mine action centers were established
to reflect the political, ethnic and religious makeup of the country. Each
entity mine action center conducts mine awareness and risk-reduction programs,
demining training, Level-One minefield surveys, minefield marking, and mine
clearance operations in their respective territories. They also provide information
to the BHMAC central landmine database and set work priorities. These activities
enable the mine action centers to address the specific needs of the two Bosnian
entities to develop sustainable, decentralized capacities to address the landmine
In all my discussions
with mine action officials, a constant theme emerged villages, towns
and cities everywhere continue to suffer from the presence of landmines, several
years after the war has ended. Despite the best intentions of the mine action
centers, limited funding hampers their efforts to solve the problem. The plight
suffered by so many Bosnians is that mines prevent the cultivation of land
and the reconstruction of homes, which in turn prevent the return of refugees
and the recovery and development of local economies. Hundreds of communities
and thousands of lives are directly and indirectly affected by the mine contamination
I concluded my
trip to Bosnia with an emotionally charged visit to two very different mine-affected
residential areas in Sarajevo. It is hard to capture the adrenaline rush that
I experienced as I walked through these mined areas. I had spoken to many
deminers and mine survivors, but nothing prepared me for this day. Representatives
from the Federation Mine Action Center served as my tour guides on this occasion.
I was required to wear a flak jacket and always stayed closely behind my guides.
first stop was a neighborhood located in the hills above Sarajevo from
where Serb forces had shelled the city below during the war. They occupied
hundreds of homes in these hills, forming an almost impenetrable line
of defense many miles long. Nearly all the homes had been shelled and
fired upon, ransacked and heavily mined. There have been, and continue
to be on occasion, many mine-related injuries and deaths in the area.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. A shepherd investigates his flock of
sheep a few minutes after they have been killed by a bounding mine. He
entered the area despite warnings not to do so. Photo c/o UNA/USA/Oren
Aid, a non-governmental demining organization, was clearing the area of mines
during our visit. They had been here for several weeks, painstakingly searching
for mines an inch at a time. Given the hilly terrain, the dense, overgrown
bush and the rubble left over from the war, probing the ground manually was
the most efficient demining technique. Neither dogs nor mechanical demining
machines, which are so useful elsewhere, worked here.
As I surveyed
the area and watched the deminers in action, I was surprised to see an old
woman walking up the hill right beside the deminers and further amazed to
see several children playing in the street below. It was only at this point
in my trip that I realized just how precariously the people in mine-affected
communities live. An inadvertent mistake by one of the deminers or an over-enthusiastic
child straying off the main street could easily detonate a mine, resulting
in death or injury to all those around. The real danger of landmines is that
they remain dormant after hostility ceases and this once again became abundantly
clear when we visited the second neighborhood on our tour.
southern suburbs of Sarajevo occupy largely flat expanses of land. Like
so much of the city, many of these communities were destroyed or badly
damaged during the war. We visited a community of several dozen houses
surrounded by fertile agricultural land. None of the houses were habitable,
nor was the land cultivatable because the area had been heavily mined.
My guides took me to this neighborhood because there had been a mine accident
earlier that morning.
Polje, Koshos, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo c/o UNA/USA/Oren Shlein
As we arrived
at the scene, I was stunned by what I saw. We walked up to the second story
of a house whose frame was a reminder of the home that used to exist there.
No more than 30 feet away was a large crater in the ground and at least a
dozen dead sheep. More than 100 feet away lay at least two dozen more dead
sheep. One of the sheep had detonated a bounding mine, which had leapt up
in the air and scattered its fragments in a 360-degree radius. All the sheep
in the field died instantly. A lone shepherd, struck by grief at the loss
of his flock and his livelihood, wandered aimlessly through the field. He
was oblivious to the warnings of the deminers to leave the area, which could
easily contain other mines.
As I left Sarajevo
the following day, I was haunted by the image of the shepherd. Did he survive
or did he fall victim to another landmine? It is a sobering experience to
travel through hundreds of miles of small rural comm-unities and large urban
centers and witness firsthand the devastating, indiscriminate impact of landmines.
Their legacy in Bosnia is all encompassing. While the magnitude of the landmine
problem is overwhelming, small measures of support, whether financial or in-kind,
do have a considerable impact on the lives of those individuals and communities
they are intended to help. Together, we can all clear a path to a safer world.
Oren J. Schlein
first became acquainted with landmines in March 1997, when he listened to an
interview with Ken Rutherford, an American aid worker who lost both of his legs
in a landmine explosion in Somalia. Mr. Schlein is the Director of the Adopt-A-Minefield
Program and works with survivors regularly. Mr. Rutherford is the co-founder
of Landmine Survivors Network.