Demining in the Balkans


By Sarah Huddleston, Analyst at IB Consultancy

The Yugoslav Crises: A Brief Synopsis

The Yugoslav Wars were the culmination of ethnic conflicts, wars of independence, and insurgencies fought from 1991 to 2001 in the former Yugoslavia, which led to the breakup of the state. The Humanitarian Law Center estimates that the series of conflicts led to the death of 130,000 people, the evacuation of 2.4 million people, and internal displacement of 2 million people.

At its core, the conflicts were based around the territorial control of Southeast Europe, a region of great ethnic and religious diversity. After the death of socialist dictator President Josip Broz Tito in 1980, a period of instability ensued for the country of Yugoslavia and its people. In response to this mutability, the Serbians sought to expand their political influence within the six-republic federation, which, at the time, included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.

The Yugoslav crises are remembered today, characterized by ethnic cleansing, the indiscriminant shelling of towns and cities occupied by innocent civilians and mass rape that took place within the region for nearly a decade. Many of the wars ended with the signing of peace agreements, such as the General Framework Agreement for Peace, which was signed when Bosnia secured its independence.

The effects of such an unthinkable disaster are multi-directional, complex, and still exist within the social and political landscape of Southeast Europe. To help restore justice for the lives that were lost during this period, the United Nations established a court of law, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where people who committed war crimes were tried. This institution, formed in 1993, was a body established to prosecute serious crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars, and to try their perpetrators. The ICTY indicted 161 individuals for war crimes, such as murder, torture, rape, and enslavement, in connection with the Yugoslav Wars.

Land Mine Contamination in the Balkans

The multi-faceted threat to human existence—war—wreaks havoc on the social, economic, and political environment on local, regional, and global levels. The effects of the Yugoslav Wars are complex and have continued to evolve since the wars’ conclusion in 2001.

Throughout the conflict, all parties used conflict laid mines, mostly on the confrontation lines and border areas. As a result, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia face a significant problem from antipersonnel and antivehicle mines; Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo deal mostly with unexploded ordnance and submunitions from cluster bombs.

In just Bosnia and Herzegovina, the current mine suspected area is covering 1053km2, or 2% of the total country area; there are still 75,000-80,000 mines and UXO in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2015, it was reported that a total of 1,732 people have been involved in land mine accidents in Bosnia since the Bosnian war’s end, with six hundred of those instances resulting in deaths. The presence of such a threat has prompted governments and organizations to establish mine victim assistance programs, mine risk education at school, and mine suspected area marking. These efforts are oftentimes dependent on the yearly funding received from the government or supranational organizations, such as the European Union.

Despite these exercises, each year brings an evolution of challenges and threats to progress. In May 2014, for example, landslides and flooding unearthed a large majority of landmines, prompting authorities to locate and deactivate mines that were a threat to civilians in residential neighborhoods.

A Deeper Look: The Work of the Croatian Mine Action Center

In Croatia, it is estimated that 369 square kilometers of territory contains landmines. According to the Croatian Mine Action Center, some 31,969 land mines are still yet to be found, in addition to unexploded ordnance left over from the Croatian War of Independence. As of 2013, 509 people had been killed by landmines, including 60 deminers and seven Croatian Army engineers that were killed during demining operations. The completion of landmine removal operations is estimated to cost €500 million or more for the Croatian Government, in addition to lost revenue from housing refugees and families displaced by the conflict in highly touristic areas.

In an interview with Zdravko Modrušan, Director of the Croatian Mine Action Center (CROMAC), he speaks about the organizational structure of CROMAC and problems that it is now facing. The CROMAC is “a legal entity with public authorities, managed by the Director and administered by the Governing Council.” The organization has an intensive cooperation with local and regional governmental units to include their insights and priorities into demining plans each year.

Modrušan highlights the extended cooperation between CROMAC and relevant authorities, such as the Ministry of Interior, on Mine Risk Education (MRE). For example, he says, “during 2017, CROMAC has provided MRE to almost 28,000 people in 52 towns and municipalities throughout the Republic of Croatia. Apart from these targeted activities, CROMAC also provides actualized information about mine suspected areas which is widely accessible and displays a map of Croatia with markings and potentially contaminated areas.

CROMAC’s structure has developed in order to respond to current political climates and situations, such as the surge of Syrian refugees traveling to Germany. A significant part of the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina is mine suspected, and on the routes of refugees and illegal immigrants. “Due to the fact of this constant danger,” he says, “apart from regular and extensive courses of CROMAC marking activities, we have increased our marking efforts and inspection of these areas.” The organization holds an open line of communication with Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC) partners and exchange data about probable mine suspected areas (MSA), with a goal of avoiding any mine related accidents. Additionally, in partnership with UNICEF and the Croatian Red Cross organization, throughout the largest surge of refugees and illegal immigrants into the Republic of Croatia during late 2015, we published and disseminated, throughout the border areas, a special leaflet in English and Arabic with information about mine dangers and safe behavior.”

Organizations, such as CROMAC, are proactive in calculating threats that must still be overcome to secure the Balkan region. Yet, there are still an incalculable amount of threats and challenges that must be overcome to fully secure the land. Some of the challenges in combatting demining the Balkan region include monetary capabilities, and the continuously changing physical landscape. The “continuously changing environment and remaining mine suspected areas that are in difficult and harsh nature locations such as mountain or hill regions, dense forest areas (for example out of the remaining suspected hazardous areas in the Republic of Croatia, more than 95% is categorized as forested area) make mechanical demining methods impossible. As a result, the most expensive method of manual demining has to be performed. “Fortunately, as a part of the EU family, the Republic of Croatia has been granted an opportunity to use European Union funds to tackle this issue, so throughout the decade EU has generously contributed more than €100 million towards reaching the goal of mine free Croatia.”

Mine decontamination’s success is delayed by the inability of governments and organizations to raise the funds necessary to safely remove the still existing land mines. It is estimated that removing one landmine costs 1,000 euro, putting the estimated removal of all landmines in the Balkan region between €50 to €100 billion. Due to the high costs of demining, it is feared that Bosnia may never become mine-free and many afflicted countries are unable to meet 2019 goals proposed by multiple U.N. treaties. Additionally, more steps must be taken by the EU and participating governments to improve the conditions of manual demining, with the goal of protecting the men and women who risk their lives to secure the mine infected land for civilians.

However, the continuous work of mine action centers in the Balkans helps maintain the progress that can be seen from year to year. Through their efforts, the livelihood and safety of civilians living in close proximity to mine infested areas will slowly be restored.

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