Croatia's Deadly Legacy

The scene could unfold anywhere: Three teenage boys ride bikes along a river in springtime. Their parents forbade them to ride this far, but they peddle on, bursting with curiosity. Unfortunately, they happen to be in Pakrac, a small Croatian town in the former Yugoslavia.Suddenly, one boy is thrown violently from his bike, blinded and knocked unconscious by an explosion beneath his front tire. His friends are also thrown to the ground, their arms burning from a Serbian land mind's shrapnel.This story is repeated often by children here. An estimated six million mines are hidden throughout the region, two for every child. Without extensive demining assistance from the international community and fundamental changes in the US's well-intentioned buy ill-devised arms policies, many face a painful future.The UN Convention on Inhumane Weapons protocol prohibits intentional landmine use against civilians. Nonetheless, the Croatian Red Cross reports that millions of mines were planted -- near roads, bridges, railways, fields, barns, driveways, gardens, power plants, waterways, supply and gas lines, even in forests and national parks -- threatening civilian lives and hindering community recovery. More mines were concealed in former Yugoslavia in the last four years than anywhere else in the world. At the height of the war, up to 50,000 were planted every week.According to Dr. Nenad Javornik, Executive President of the Croatian Red Cross, triggers are hidden in everyday items that most civilians -- especially children -- would never suspect. Wheel barrows, television sets, light switches, toy trucks, and ball point pens are all used as detonators. Even religious buildings and schools were targets.Yet, under the international arms embargo, both armies and humanitarian aid organizations were forbidden from purchasing landmine detectors. People were denied the right to arm and defend themselves, and to disarm their homes, lands, and communities. Instead, they were forced to depend on the UN and a handful of reluctant nations.No one except the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) could import mine detectors. Consequently, with limited access to other weapons, the Serbs, among the world's leading mine, placed millions of them to further "ethnic cleansing" and secure its military position. Contrary to its intent, the arms embargo -- by barring the import of detectors and limiting access to less dangerous weapons -- worsened the war's devastation.By denying even humanitarian agencies the right to demine, the international community obligated itself to undertake the expensive and deadly chore. By mid-1994, landmines were the leading cause of UNPROFRO casualties.But the UN's demining efforts often led to resupply of local militaries. Most demining missions were carried out in cooperation with whatever military force controlled the region; UN Peacekeepers risked lives to protect the local military. Nonetheless, soldiers often kept UNPROFOR demining experts waiting for hours, siphoned off food and fuel, ore, even worse, misinformed them about landmines' presence.Since the UN forces had no mandate to confiscate detected mines, many were returned to the combatants who laid them.Canadian Sergeant Gregory James describes UNPROFOR's demining procedure: "We BIP [blow up in place] a few, but the politics are that if [the armies] want to take them, they do. That's the worst thing about this job."in recent months, thousands of mines have been cleared, but the focus was on military strategies and objectives. Meanwhile, the presence of mines prevents economic recovery. Access to agricultural land in Croatia has been reduced by 20 to 50 percent. Public works -- including electric, water and gas lines -- are primary targets. No substantial economic recovery can take place until these facilities are demined and restored.Another compelling argument for international leadership in demining is that mines were used deliberately for ethnic cleansing. If the targeted ethnic groups don't return, the brutal leaders of those campaigns will have won a genocidal victory despite the terms of the Dayton Accord.The inclusion of landmine detectors in the list of embargoed arms is proving costly and deadly. In Croatia alone, the cost of demining is expected to exceed $4000 million. According to Boris Davidovich of Croatia's Office of Civil Defense, 100 volunteers are trained, but demining equipment access remains inadequate. Even fully equipped, Davidovich anticipates up to 10 years of work for his staff to demine Croatia.The longer it takes, the more difficult the task will be. People forget the locations of mines. They change position over time, or become more deeply buried. Even specially-trained demining dogs eventually have difficulty picking up the scent.Further complicating the situation are the thousands of returning refugee families. Currently, these civilians risk needless suffering from remaining mines. When you consider the international community's responsibility for creating this crisis, enabling families to make their homes and land safe for resettlement is the least that is owed.

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