A New Law, New Structure and New Hope in Bosnia

After years of struggling with an inefficient mine action structure, a new demining law has revitalized the Bosnia-Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC). Bosnians finally have the means to conquer their landmine troubles.

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A BHMAC truck waits behind the BHMAC headquarters, beside the Marshal Tito Barracks.
by JJ Scott, MAIC


A new law enacted in March of 2002 marked the beginning of a Bosnian mine action renaissance that will improve everything from national program management to individual minefield procedures. A complete restructuring and reorganization of the BHMAC will finally allow the “head” of Bosnian mine action to effectively direct the bodies beneath it, and to responsibly report to the government through the Demining Commission. The Bosnian government formulated the demining law and will help fund its implementation—an extraordinary step toward its goal of effective national program ownership. The new law and the structures it creates gives Bosnian mine action practitioners a management system that is attuned to their own culture and unique landmine situation—indispensable weapons in the struggle to free their nation from the landmines holding it hostage.


To appreciate the turnaround now taking place, some background is necessary. Over three years of fighting (1992–1995) among several different armies along undulating front lines left “a very complicated and extensive [landmine] problem in a complex environment,” says Mr. David Rowe, Program Manager of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and adviser to the BHMAC, Demining Commission and International Board of Donors. He describes the mine threat left by the war as “quite complex because of its extent, because of its low density and because of its random nature,” making “the landmine problem here less quantifiable than in other parts of the world.” 

Knowing refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) would soon try returning home, the United Nations set up a mine action center in 1996. The United Nations soon decided that Bosnians should run their own mine action program, handing over all responsibilities on July 1, 1998. The Bosnians inherited a structure that was “a development program in a 100 percent task-oriented environment..., a decision perhaps more designed to accommodate political needs than immediate practical post-war considerations,” says Mr. Rowe. Under the UN-created structure, the State-level BHMAC was essentially subservient to the two relatively autonomous Entity MACs (one representing the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and one for the Republic of Srpska), effectively preventing it from wielding any real managerial influence over demining operations. Many in Bosnia feel that the United Nations handed the program over to Bosnian authorities a bit too early, before either the MAC or the Bosnian government was ready.

By late 2000, a budget crisis created and exacerbated by allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the highest levels left the three MACs on the verge of collapse. Demining and surveying operations slowed dramatically. In a drastic (but not completely uncalled for) move, the High Representative dismissed the three-man Demining Commission, citing corruption and misuse of influence. Mr. Rowe feels “the national team should be commended for keeping the show alive and going forward, albeit slowly,” during this period.

New Hope

Sometimes things have to be at the brink of collapse—it has to be very clear to all involved that things are not well—before you can get positive change and head in the right direction,” Mr. Rowe remarks, looking back at that critical period. The Bosnian government realized that much of its economic, health care, infrastructure and redevelopment woes were related to leftover landmines, and they finally made a concerted effort to address the problem with a logical, legitimately Bosnian solution. The Bosnian mine action structure needed replacement, not refurbishment, and in early 2001 work started on a law that would create a new, tenable organization. With considerable foreign encouragement, lawmakers hashed out the details over the next few months, and the legislature approved Bosnia’s landmark Demining Law in March 2002.

ELS’ “Beaver” exits a minefield just outside of Sarajevo.

Management Level
The law centralized management and development functions—formerly shared and/or fought over by the two Entity MACs—within the BHMAC, leaving day-to-day operational decisions to subordinate offices in Sarajevo (the Federation) and Banja Luka (the Republic). Mr. Dusan Gavran, newly appointed Director of the BHMAC, believes that this new arrangement will yield several tangible benefits: “Before, the entity governments dictated priorities. Nothing was coordinated. Now, one ministry-level department will rule over the two governments. The Entity governments will submit priorities, and all information will be concentrated in one spot. The Bosnian council of ministers will then decide the priorities.” This should increase communication and cooperation between the Entities and the BHMAC, but if they can’t reach an agreement on priorities, the central BHMAC will always have the last word.

Since most functions previously carried out by the Entity MACs are now under the BHMAC’s jurisdiction, many people had to update their business cards as their jobs, offices and/or titles changed. “Often, the person who was performing a certain function simply transferred that function to a new system, perhaps not even in a new office,” remarks Mr. Rowe. He adds, “This was not designed to be a great purge of people. It was designed to set up the centralized structure necessary to formulate and manage national [demining] policy.” Therefore, “when the dust settles, we may end up with about the same number of people, the difference being the way in which they work within a single cooperative body.” By retaining a core of experienced workers, the BHMAC will accomplish more than just conserve pink slips. Long-time employees know what they’re doing, have endured trying times, and thus constitute a priceless Bosnian mine action asset. Prior to his arrival at the BHMAC, Mr. Gavran heard that “the BHMAC had insufficient technical staff, that there were no experts there.” After a few weeks on the job, he saw that his staff was so experienced, “they have become experts,” even without special training. Those apprentices-turned-masters will help lead the Bosnian mine action revolution from the top.

Operational Level
The redesigned BHMAC and its subservient Entity offices are already beginning their work, and Mr. Rowe expects to see “some considerable advances fairly quickly, especially in the area of long-term strategy and management of the annual work plans.” Mine action requires a good roadmap; the new BHMAC can provide that. But a map doesn’t help anyone when used incorrectly. Planning and management are important, but nothing is accomplished if no one carries out the operation correctly.

Demining in Bosnia has not been ineffective; on the contrary, Mr. Rowe feels “the basic operational structure has performed reasonably well.” He continues, “What we really have in Bosnia is a competency to handle one of the elements of mine action: clearance. It’s the main element, but we particularly need to improve even that, and we need better results from the survey process.” General goals for the operational level include improvements in survey and inspection (quality assurance), as well as a better mine risk education program and more thorough minefield marking. Marking and barriers are especially important in Bosnia, because as Mr. Rowe points out, “some of these [mine] fields aren’t going to be cleared for a very long time.”

Drivers show great pride in their machines and their jobs.

According to Mr. Gavran, “deminers and companies do honor the [current] standards, but there are differences. Before, the entities made their own standards. Now, we want [everyone] to conform to world standards.” He believes that surveyors and inspectors especially must follow identical standards, designed and enforced by the BHMAC. Officials need to know exactly what a surveyor regards as a low- or high-risk area, how he determines the presence and size of a mine-suspected area, and the methodology used to reach those conclusions so they can properly prioritize demining projects and demarcate fields that won’t soon be cleared. The standardization of inspectors hardly needs explaining: officials (and civilians) need to know what an inspector means when he recommends certification of land as cleared and how he judged it so. Did he take some mine-detecting dogs through the field, or run a machine over it, or play hopscotch down the middle of it? Mr. Gavran feels that in the past, “every [inspector] has added or omitted something” on his/her reports, leaving uncertainty where none should be. For inspectors and surveyors, any miscommunication might cause landmine casualties.

Mr. Rowe insists, “No dramatic [operational] changes have been put into effect, and there’s absolutely no reason why they should immediately be,” since operations do in fact function at a reasonably efficient level compared to the management structures being overhauled right now. For now, management problems are more urgent than operational, and winter will soon halt most operations anyway, giving the BHMAC plenty of time to draw up new standards and priorities and whatever else they determine necessary.

The donor community has shown keen interest in recent events, as they should—despite much progress, Bosnia still requires heavy financial aid to pull off their mine action miracle. It is certainly too soon to declare corruption in Bosnia extinct, but we can safely place it on the endangered list for now, as Mr. Gavran promises to prove the BHMAC’s trustworthiness through transparency: “The door of the MAC is open to everyone involved in demining in the world,” he declared, ushering in a new level of information sharing between the MAC and its donors.

Differing Roles

In the meantime, demining goes on. Commercial companies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Entity armies, and Civil Protection forces all execute demining activities in Bosnia. Each has its own role, but in general internationally funded companies and NGOs clear most minefields in civilian areas, the armies conduct their own projects in accordance with national priorities, and Civil Protection completes a small—but increasing—percentage of demining activities. Once Bosnia is declared free from the effects of mines, Civil Protection and Army forces will take the lead role, cleaning up residual minefields and responding to emergencies as necessary. Understanding each demining asset’s strengths and weaknesses is integral to understanding Bosnian demining.

NGOs complete a large percentage of the demining tasks in Bosnia each year. They are independently funded (no Bosnian government support), relatively stable organizations. Many are foreign charity groups. The BHMAC has no direct control over NGOs, save task allocation, quality control and accreditation. Still, NGOs typically try to act in the nation’s best interest, acceding to the BHMAC’s wishes—when their donors have the same wishes. Mr. Stephen Bryant is the Norwegian Peoples Aid (NPA) program manager for Bosnian operations. NPA is a major NGO in Bosnia, maintaining a staff of about 200 Bosnians (and three ex-pats, including Mr. Bryant) as they help build local capacity, teach management skills, develop infrastructure—and do big-time demining throughout the country. NPA’s involvement in Bosnia is typical of many NGOs, and also represents something of an ideal: NPA maintains an excellent reputation by regularly achieving its goals, which delights their donors and draws more donations, allowing them to set even more ambitious goals. NPA’s Bosnia operation is a long-term development program that will total about 11 years. Significantly, they’re about to hand over demining operations in the Republic of Srbska to Civil Protection. The transition has begun.

Commercial Companies
Commercial companies often specialize in one area of demining, allowing them to complete tasks for less money than general demining organizations. An economist would say that specialized companies have a comparative advantage over other groups in their focus area. An NGO, the government or even another company often hires a commercial company to complete a specific segment of a larger job, saving the client money. Demining companies’ concern for the bottom line leads to dynamic, innovative and cost-effective solutions to tough problems. European Landmine Solutions (ELS) is a company that focuses on mechanical area preparation. When hired, they drive huge armored flails back and forth over a minefield, beating the ground with rotating chains to remove all vegetation. That’s it—no clearance, no survey, just men with huge machines clearing the way for manual deminers or dogs to follow. Thorough area preparation removes annoying brush from deminers’ paths and, more importantly, triggers any tripwires straddling the minefield. In Bosnia, near-invisible tripwire filaments often lead to a nasty Yugoslav mine called the PROM-1. When activated, the PROM-1’s explosive charge shoots upward about four feet before detonating, spraying shrapnel over a much wider area than conventional blast mines. Deminers really appreciate ELS’ services.

ELS operators rest beside an NPA truck. A large graveyard sprawls in the distance.

The ELS business model requires heavy input from Bosnian workers, depending on savvy locals to help the company improve its operations. According to Mr. Paul Simmons, ELS’ Bosnian office manager, local crews operate and maintain all of ELS’ equipment, learning everything there is to know about each machine. Then, when demining operations cease during the winter months, these same crews give ELS recommendations for improving their machines, often doing much of the work themselves. Mr. Simmons added that his crews included Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Catholics—groups who were at each others’ throats just seven years ago now hang out together at the ELS garage all winter, trading tool tips and shop talk.

Entity Armies/Civil Protection
Immediately after the war, only the Entity armies had any idea where mines might be—they laid many of them, after all. They were the first wave of demining activity in Bosnia. The armies’ work was more militarily strategic than humanitarian, and international NGOs and commercial companies soon superseded them, but their discipline, knowledge and decent equipment make them valuable assets nonetheless. As the NGOs and commercial companies slowly migrate to other demining hotspots, the Entity armies may see their demining workload increase.

The armies may pick up some of the demining work, but they have other tasks—such as defending the country. Most demining will eventually fall on Civil Protection forces, Bosnia’s indigenous, civilian-run enforcement squads. Right now, Civil Protection undertakes a relatively small proportion of the work, but in the future, when most priority minefields are cleared, Civil Protection will conduct needed spot demining and emergency calls whenever needed. In the end, Bosnians will have only Bosnians demining their nation: the triumphant endgame of the Bosnian battle against landmines.


In Bosnia, there hasn’t been much difference between a realist and a cynic, since neither had anything positive to say about the future—until now. Suddenly, optimists are respectable people again. Mr. Rowe knows better than anyone the reasons why: “We have a new management team already in place—there’s finally a real chance for stability. And the government, with all its difficult circumstances, has begun to pick up its responsibilities—that shows it’s interested in getting on with business.” For the first time since independence, the Bosnian government has conceived and executed a plan—the Demining Law—that paves the way for the resolution of a Bosnian problem using a Bosnian system that will eventually rely entirely on national resources. “It’s fairly simple, actually,” Mr. Rowe explains. “We are at the point where the Bosnians can really take the lead in solving their problems, and that’s always the best way to go!”


Most information for this article is from interviews with Mr. David Rowe, Mr. Dusan Gavran, Mr. Stephen Bryant and Mr. Paul Simmons in Sarajevo during June and July of 2002. I thank them for their cooperation and hospitality. Any errors, misinformation or mischaracterization in this article is my fault alone.

*All photos courtesy of MAIC.

Contact Information

JJ Scott