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Europe

Former enemies clear mines together in Bosnia

Bosnia and Herzegovina is considered to be one of the most heavily land mine-infested countries in the world. Former soldiers are often employed to clear the mines. DW's Mehmed Smajic spoke to some of them.

Landminen in Bosnien und Herzegowina Slavisa Pejanovic und Sabahudin Barakovic

Enemies over 20 years ago, friends today: Slavisa Pejanovic (l.) and Sabahudin Barakovic

Sabahudin Barakovic removes land mines that he himself actually laid when he was a soldier of the Bosnian army. At that time, Serbian soldiers were the enemy. Now, he works closely together with Serbs. "In this profession, we are equals. If an accident happens, Serbs mourn for Muslims and vice versa. We eat, drink and sleep together," says Sabahudin Barakovic in an interview with DW. Land mines are lurking only a few meters away. During the Bosnian War between 1992 und 1995, all warring parties deployed land mines.

The Serb Slavisa Pejanovic fought for the Serbian army and was thus Sabahudin Barakovic's enemy. Now he sees himself and his colleague as allies despite their ethnicities. "We mine clearers have special bond; we are like a family."

After all, mines kill everyone, he stresses. "They do not ask for your age or religion. That is why we want to clear the mines to protect everyone, regardless of state or religion," says the Serb Slavisa Pejanovic.

Most have been laid along a path 1,000 kilometers long and up to four kilometers wide that still separates the two parts of Bosnia and Hercegovina – on one side is the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina and on the other, the autonomous Serbian republic "Republika Srpska."

Mine fields submerged after floods

The area is being cleared by the organization "NN Ivsa" headed by Sabahudin Barakovic. Germany has provided 90 percent of the funding and the other ten percent comes from the city of Gracanica.

"We have realized that demining is very important here because it is a great danger to our citizens," says the mayor of Gracanica, Nusret Helic. On behalf of his 45,000 residents, he thanks Germany for the assistance.

Since 1997, Germany has been supporting mine and ordnance clearance projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite all the foreign aid, it is estimated that there are still mines in an area covering over one thousand square kilometers. Last year, the scope of the problem in the Balkan region became clear when Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were submerged by heavy floods.

"Iraq was the most difficult"

That is why experienced mine clearers like Sabahudin Barakovic are in demand. During his career, he has cleared defused mines in Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq. He said Iraq was the most difficult, working in temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius. He returned to Bosnia because Iraq had become too dangerous, especially in view of the terror group "Islamic State."

That is where the now 65-year-old Mehemed Hasanovik from Zvornik worked, together with Sabahudin Barakovic. He has been a mine clearer for 19 years and will be retiring in a few months. "I know how dangerous this work is; I have lost three colleagues," he recalls. "I took them off the mine field with my own hands and drove them to the hospital. But they didn't make it." Since the end of the war in Bosnia, at least 47 mine clearers have lost their lives at work; another 70 have been severely injured.

Less pay than a tiler

Ivo Prgic, a Croatian colleague of Hasanovic and Barakovic is aware of the hazards. But he says that he is not scared. Mines often explode while he is working – he says it has happened four times in one day alone. You can see the shrapnel on the glass part of the machine he works with.

"The job of clearing mines is unattractive for young people; they find it too dangerous and too strenuous," says Mehemed Hasanovic.

Despite the constant danger, pay is low. A mine clearer earns between 50 euro cents and two euros for clearing an area of one square meter. "In comparison, tilers earn four euros for the same surface area. It is really sad," says Sabahudin Barakovic.

Since the war in Bosnia, more than 1,670 mines have exploded and killed more than 600 people - among them 240 children. Over 15 percent of the small Balkan country's residents of live and work right next to mine fields today. At the current rate, it will probably take more than forty years to clear all the mines in the entire country.