Sarajevo, Blagovac (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
From our special correspondent
“Mines, there were some on the side of the road not so long ago! », exclaims Kenan Muftic. This road, below the hill of Blagovac, leads directly to Sarajevo, about ten kilometers away. The Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC) only declared the capital and surrounding areas mine-free last year, twenty-six years after the end of the bloody conflict that killed more than 100,000 dead and left the territory littered with about a million of these explosive weapons near the many front lines.
Kenan Muftic, the mountaineer adept at trekking on the summits of the planet, in Nepal as in Ethiopia, leads another type of high-risk expedition on this hill of Blagovac. For nearly twenty years, he has been dedicated to demining his country, heading the mine detection dog training center of the Norwegian organization People’s Aid (NPA), one of the 30 demining operators in the country, which alone accounts for 20%. And it carries out missions on three continents, thanks to this structure which has become a world reference. The center’s dogs have taken part in demining operations in 24 countries. They are currently present in Cambodia, Angola, Zimbabwe and Iraq.
“We have never had an accident with the dogs”, welcomes Kenan Muftic. While dozens of deminers have paid with their lives for the hunt for explosive devices in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We work with Belgian shepherds, because they are a breed of intelligent, cooperative, hard-working dogs, easy to train, and of course with an extremely developed sense of smell, he specifies. They can detect mines much deeper than metal detectors, whose capacity is limited to six or twenty centimeters underground. »
As soon as they can be separated from their mother, the puppies born on the spot are put to work and become operational after about fifteen months of training, at the rate of four hours of work per day. On this huge space looking like an amusement park, in the open air and under sheds, the puppies, always accompanied by their trainer, learn to flush out a toy, then the toy cut in half, then smaller and smaller pieces. of this toy hidden in nature, in bricks, car wrecks, etc. Similarly, they develop their sense of smell until they identify the smell of a mine and even the smell of ground soiled by a mine. At the end of the session, in the company of their guide, they know how to rake the ground by traversing it in perfectly straight back and forth directions. After examination, the guide-dog duo is then officially accredited to operate in the field for six months, a period that must be renewed each time.
“As soon as the dog has detected a mine, he sits down, his guide comes to mark the place at the address of the deminer who has remained in the background. If there is a suspicion of the presence of a PROM-1 mine, particularly deadly mines that jump and explode in the air, then we increase the distance to 50 meters”, explains Kenan Muftic. The former Yugoslavia was a major producer of mines, in particular of these PROM-1s which turned against it…
The director is not about to see the end of his mission. Until the war in Ukraine, newly infested with mines and explosive devices, Bosnia remained the most contaminated country in Europe. According to the BHMAC, there are still 175,000 mines scattered over the territory. They threaten the existence of 545,000 people living in 118 municipalities, or 16% of the population. The surroundings of towns like Mostar are still not cleared. The first victims are the vulnerable populations who venture into the forests for their subsistence, the hunters and fishermen, the migrants and the children, without forgetting the deminers and the firefighters forced to face the hostile environments in flames.
Like any state that has ratified the Mine Ban Convention, Bosnia and Herzegovina had ten years to clean up its country from 1999. In 2008, it asked for a ten-year extension, followed by a two-year extension. In 2020, she again requested an extension until 2027. “We know that this deadline cannot be met,” affirms Kenan Muftic who counts, at least, on a horizon of 2032.
“The land that remains to be cleared is the most difficult to access, rocky, sloping, steep areas or areas with very dense vegetation, explains Svjetlana Lulzdzija from BHMAC. The historic floods of 2014 and the fifty or so landslides that scattered the mines complicated the situation. »“We were able to demine 30 km2 per year, she adds. But we fell at a pace of about 10-12 km2 per year due to lack of funding, despite international aid. » Gold 922km2 still remain to be cleared.
“A great job of verifying information was done from 2018 to 2020. It made it possible to reduce suspicious areas, but also to discover new ones”, says Kenan Muftic. Some maps of mined areas are still difficult to interpret. “We have the information communicated by the soldiers who themselves laid the mines, in accordance with the obligation which appears in the peace agreements of Dayton, but the people are more or less cooperative”, he acknowledges.
Witnesses and victims also provide their testimonies. “It takes a long time to understand what happened, to determine the battle lines, that is, where the lands were mined,” reports a demining actor. “For that, you have to be able to win the trust of the inhabitants; some provide us with war diaries with handwritten plans of the mines, sketches showing the trees, the river, the nature and the number of mines laid. » A minelayer who feared returning to his village, terrified of being prosecuted for war crimes, ended up cooperating.
The rivalries between Serbian, Croat and Bosnian nationalist leaders at the helm of the country also seize up, more than necessary, the very complex institutional layering based on an ethnic base. Thus, many fear that the renewal of the members of the demining commission, whose term will expire this spring, will drag out, like the six-month wait in 2019-2020 during which no operator had been able to be accredited.
The choice of a business model may also have aroused unsavory covetousness and allowed corruption. The former director of BHMAC, prosecuted for corruption, abuse of a position of authority and falsification of documents, also went through prison in 2014. “There is a lot of money to be made through calls for tenders, continues the anonymous actor, and some have an interest in dragging out operations. If there was more political will, the demining could be completed. »
As long as the land is not liberated, life cannot resume its course, preventing construction, the development of agriculture or tourism, even hampering the work of the International Commission on Disappeared Persons. It finds itself unable to prospect in infested areas suspected of containing mass graves. However, more than 7,500 people are still missing.