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The PROM 1 - Waiting in the Ground for the Deminers in Kosovo
by Al J. Venter


Issue 4.1 | February 2000 | Information in this issue may be outdated. Click here to link to the most recent issue.

The PROM-1 is a deadly and menacing anti-personnel mine, even as it lies partly on its side. This mine has killed or injured more clearance personnel in the Balkans than all other Yugoslav mines combined.

The PROM-1, the worst in bounding anti-personnel mines and not much bigger than a beer can, is a vicious weapon whose shrapnel can penetrate almost any body armor. It cuts through the average Kevlar helmet like cardboard, as it does often enough for those who try to clear these deadly little bombs, and Kosovo is full of them.

There aren't many mine clearing specialists working in the Balkans who don't have a favorite story about the PROM-1. When one of the teams working there is lucky enough to spot one of these bombs before it finds them (and sometimes there are several, usually laid in clusters) the word is whispered down the line. Most of those on the ground will wait to see what action is taken. Obviously, all mines must be cleared, and that's official. How this is done is what focuses the mind; those working with the stuff know that the PROM-1 is a killer.

After Dayton, there were a lot of casualties among those trying to clear PROM-1s. In the words of one American specialist, "They're a bitch to disarm. We just like to blow 'em where we find 'em." PROM-1s are not so easy to spot, especially when the ground is thick with grass and shrubs, as it is in the summer in Kosovo. The business part that protrudes above the ground isn't much bigger than a matchbox.

In recent years, during the course of a succession of Balkan wars, it quickly became apparent that most PROM-1s were so unstable that the only way to handle them was to destroy the mines on site. Anything else was invariably a disaster. You only need to brush against any one of the device's tiny prongs and it's over. A bounding mine hurls the bomb a couple of feet into the air and kills everything nearby.

According to Col. Richard Todd, a 23-year American Special Forces veteran with experience in mines and ordnance dating back to Vietnam, you have about a 60 percent chance of being killed if you are within 50 yards of the explosion. "It happens so fast," he said, "that most aren't even aware of what happened." Todd has been working with mines in the Balkans for the past five years and he explained why the PROM-1 is deadly: "Unlike the `popular' Yugoslav PMA-2, which is the blast mine that you find everywhere in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, the PROM-1 is a group fragmentation mine. It was designed around the original German `S' mine which caused such terrible damage in WWII and which the Allies notoriously dubbed `Bouncing Betty.' That's language carried over from the Vietnam era; it's in little use today among mine clearing specialists," he declared.

License To Kill

"The PROM-1 has a devastating effect when it blows. It is a bit like a proximity fuse on a mortar or artillery shell exploding a few feet above the ground," Todd suggested. "And because this mine can be laid with multiple trip wires, it has become the obvious weapon of choice among the Serbs. They like it because just one PROM-1 can take out a group of people, or even a squad of soldiers on patrol," he continued. "In recent years," said Todd, "it was increasingly deployed in urban areas. They've been laying them in Kosovo as if they've a license to do so," he said.

Small as it is, the PROM-1, a bottle shaped, olive green, cast-steel mine, is a complex device. Designated in the textbooks as a "buried, tripwire-activated bounding anti-personnel fragmentation mine," it weighs a little over six pounds. Its single pound of explosives is a combination of Trotyl and RDX in about equal proportions. The fuse contains an integral percussion cap "which is what makes it so damned unstable," said one authority. Most of the people who have tried to disarm it have come short fiddling with the business end.

There is controversy about its plastic coated tripwire. Some say dogs can detect it and others reckon they can't. Usually the same color as the terrain, tripwires are difficult to spot under the best conditions and in Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army has had major problems because of the foliage. A proportion of the casualties taken by the guerrilla group before the Allies went in was from mines, some PMA-2s but also PROM-1s.

The problem is that once tripped, it is impossible to differentiate between the small blast that lifts the bomb out of the ground and the full effect of the explosion, which is devastating. Someone in Angola who once had an armored vehicle, tripped one in front of him said that both blasts were simultaneous. Any hope of evasive action, consequently, is impossible. More uncommon versions of the same mine such as the PROM-1P and PROM-2 tend to bound a little higher, but they have the same devastating effect.

"Some mean weapon, and not to be trifled with," Todd warned. He heads the U.N. Mine Action Team inZagreb and has files full of PROM-1 incidents, a lot of which make for some pretty grim reading. Despite multiple warnings, casualties with PROM-1s do happen. A crack international mine clearing team working under U.N. auspices in Croatia had one of its members killed earlier this year. Operating with dogs in an area reduction program, the operator couldn't have spotted the one that either he or the pooch tripped. Two shards of shrapnel penetrated his brain in the explosion that followed and he was killed instantly. Miraculously his dog, working only yards away, was untouched.

Yugoslavia: One Big Mine Field

Almost all the countries that once comprised the old Yugoslavia and that have seen military action in recent years have problems with mines. In parts of Bosnia, it is still dangerous to venture off the road. The same holds for Croatia. A succession of mine fields, some Serbian, the others laid by the Croat Army, stretch down almost the entire length of the country in a half-moon pattern that extends over 500 miles. The mine fields run from Vukovar in the north-east to the Montenegro border. Only the narrow coastal corridor between Sibenik and Sipa remain uncontaminated.

While there are mine fields in dozens of other countries all over the world, those in the Balkans have suddenly acquired a notoriety of their own. What the Serbs did with mines in Croatia and Bosnia, they have repeated in Kosovo. It is also no secret that Croatian minefields have become the subjects of close study by a variety of NATO security and intelligence organizations.

Mines At Garage Sales

In the Balkans, the Serbs have been making mines for decades, and their stuff is good. By the early 90s, Yugoslavia was earning $2 billion a year from its weapons sales, mostly from Third World buyers. Even today, it is easy to buy any number of Yugoslav mines in East European arms bazaars.

Like it or not, some mines, like the PROM-1 and the anti-tank TMRP-6 (and TMRP-7) as well as the full range of TMA mines, are as good as anything produced in the West. U.N. mine clearing teams are encountering Yugoslav mines in just about every international trouble spot. In places like Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Mozambique you find Yugoslav landmines, often in great quantity.

Now that almost every NATO country is helping in Kosovo, landmines are arguably the single most serious obstacles. As someone once said of mines, "They are cheap, need no food, remain silent and inactive (and potent) for years. They also have the ability to do great damage." U.N. mine clearing teams presently working under U.N. or World Bank auspices in Bosnia and Croatia have made a number of observations about Balkan mine fields. Clearing them often involves complex and sometimes frightening problems and some of those doing the work are getting hurt.

There have been fatalities. "There is simply no magic bullet for clearing landmines," Todd says. "In order to do the job effectively, you need to draw from a `toolbox' of three fundamental disciplines. These are human and mechanical deminers, as well as dogs trained to find them. None of these assets on its own can do the job properly. You need one to check the efficiency of the other."

Nor are these disciplines free or cheap. "It is expensive to run and maintain a demining operation. The specialists doing the job are expensive and so is the insurance to cover them in case of accident. Similarly, you constantly need to train more people to do the job properly. That, too, costs money," Todd stated.

There are a number of countries clearing mines in the Balkans, all of them involved in seven-figure dollar contracts, which are usually linked to foreign aid. In Croatia, the Russians were followed by Italy, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, the United States (RONCO) and Mechem of South Africa. There are also at least 12 Croatian firms. This includes Mungos, said to be one of the largest companies in the world specializing in this sort of work.

Mechem, following contracts in Angola and Mozambique, operates with a project leader plus seven: two team leaders, two dog handles, a driver/mechanic and a couple of demolition specialists. Johan van Zyl runs the show. As he explained, all of his men have good Special Forces military experience and all are trained medics in trauma medicine. "There have been times when these attributes have been handy," he said.

Roughing It

The men work seven days a week until the contract, in this case 60 days, is complete. To save money, the men live rough, usually starting the day at six and working through to seven or eight at night. They eat before they start and the next meal is usually when they finish for the day. Time lost to rain is made up afterwards.

Operating under contract with this foreign mine clearing team are 40 Croat deminers headed by four team leaders. Additional crews (according to Croatian law) includes two each of doctors, medics, drivers, dog handlers and ambulances, plus an interpreter, all of whom must be paid for by the contract company. Other companies are similarly bound by red tape, which most foreign contractors think is a legacy of the old political system. It doesn't take any observer long to see that the majority of ancillary personnel are superfluous and therefore a waste of money.

Foreign mine clearing specialists, with whom I spoke, said that while the quality of Croatian mine clearing was good, their rate of clearance was mediocre; again, reflecting residual communist ways. Almost all the expatriates ventured that if they had been able to bring their own people into the country to do the work, they would have been able to cut much of the crap. Some said that the job would have been completed in half the time.

Clearing for Cash

There are several categories of mine clearing in the Balkans. The first is humanitarian. Consequently, most effort is invested into commercial projects with economic goals such as the one around Gospic, about 100 miles south of Zagreb. This involves clearing anti-tank (AT) and anti-personnel (AP) mines around the only rail link running from the capital to the southern coastal cities of Split and Dubrovnik.

The problem here was that contractually, clearance only extended to 15 meters on either side of the line, which meant that mine fields fringing the line, some of them many acres, remain uncleared because there was no money. The World Bank gave Zagreb a $7million loan for clearing the bombs. Because the money eventually has to be paid back, the Croats aren't falling over themselves to get the job done. While the mine clearing teams have a handle on the job, the civilians who live and work in these areas don't. Their casualties don't even make the papers any more.

Land Littered by Bones

A few days before I arrived in Gospic, a local was killed after tripping a PROM-1 within a hundred yards of the rail station. He had been walking home from work. A huge hole gouged from the turf was still visible while mine clearers worked around the spot.

While driving on some isolated country roads around Gospic, we were told that another problem facing mine clearing teams was a distinct lack of patience among local residents to get the job done. Pointing to fresh tractor tracks on both sides of the road, my guide said, "Quite often the farmers don't even wait for us to complete the job. They just ride around and occasionally they'll trip a TMRP-6 which can reduce a three-ton truck to scrap in an instant."

Or their animals will do it for them. The Gospic countryside is littered with the bones of dead cattle and horses. Apparently it is the same in Kosovo where the locals were anxious to get going again before winter set in.

One of the more difficult problems in the central Balkans is coping with heavy bush. After five years of waiting for the mines to be cleared, some parts of what had once been farmland have become almost forested. Before any clearance work can be done, small trees have to be removed to allow the teams to bring in their equipment.

In some places the undergrowth was so thick it had become impossible to work there. It was also dangerous. Everybody involved in this business knows that mines laid a decade ago don't become inactive with time. Van Zyl was considering hiring a Caterpillar, though he wasn't sure what the authorities would say or the owners of the machine.

Signs of Disaster

One of the observations during our visit was that because it lies on a main road heading towards the Dalmatian Coast on the Adriatic Sea, the town of Gospic is often crowded with German and Scandinavian cars heading south for summer. Very few of them are aware that there are mines in the surrounding countryside, and the reason is simple: Zagreb does not allow the authorities to put out any warning signs.

Consequently, said a U.N. official, most people passing through the country and perhaps picnicking en route, have no idea that they might have stopped on the edge of a mine field. "Sometimes I see cars parked with children playing in nearby fields. It's only a question of time before there is a disaster,'' he intimated.

Most of the minefields,both Serbian and Croatian, are mapped. Todd made the point that just about every day he received calls from former JNA soldiers offering him information about old mine fields. "There is a price, of course," he continued. "Some want money, others try to use it as leverage to return to their old homes."

It was notable, travelling about Croatia, that every third or fourth house or farm that we passed had been broken down, burnt or trashed. All had formerly belonged to a very large Serbian community that lived there before the war. Most of the families had been there for centuries. Like Albanian Kosovars, almost all of them had become refugees.

Postscript

Since visiting the Mechem operation around Gospic, the company finished its contract and in the two month time frame, lifted about 60 mines of which about two-third were anti-personnel. There were no casualties in that time. That contract, though small by international mine clearing standards, was worth $1.3million. Mechem has successfully tendered for two more mine-clearing projects, one in the northeast near the Hungarian border which van Zyl reckons is, "A bastard of a job because of all the booby traps," and another close to the Dalmatian coast, west of Gospic.


A. J. Venter went into the Balkans twice during the war: once with the U.S. Air Force in a Joint-STARS operation and again into old Serbian mine fields where he looked at the threat from up close.
* Reprinted with permission from Soldier of Fortune