Croatia brings minefields to EU soil | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 04.04.2013

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Croatia brings minefields to EU soil

When Croatia joins the EU on July 1, there will be uncleared minefields on European soil. Some 680 square kilometers are filled with mines from the war in the early 1990s. The task of clearing them is a brutal one.

"We're only allowed to work five hours a day," Styepan Tadic and Tomislav Ledic told DW, "and we always work outdoors. We move along the former front lines."

The two Croats work for private companies specializing in mine clearance in Croatia. "We are always on the road in Croatia, from town to town, that's the nice thing about our job," they said. "But every time we leave home we know there's a chance we won't come back. Our work doesn't tolerate mistakes."

Minenräumung in Kroatien

Croatian deminers Styepan Tadic and Tomislav Ledic

A Croatian deminer earns roughly the equivalent of 800 to 900 euros ($1,000-1,150) per month - little more than the nation-wide average . "I'd leave it up to everyone to decide whether that's appropriate payment for this job," Ledic says.

Deminers estimate that since the end of the Balkan conflict in 1995, some 60 of their colleagues have died on the job, with more than 200 injured, many severely. Most deminers are war veterans, and they could have simply retired. "But we like our job and are proud of it," Tomislav Ledic said.

A minefield

Official estimates suggest that almost two decades after the end of the Balkan conflict there are still minefields in 12 of 21 Croatian administrative territories. During the four-year war between 1991 and 1995, some 90,000 land mines were placed across the entire country.

Today, the mines remain a large obstacle for the further economic development of almost 100 towns and communities. Many Croats living in such towns depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Over the last 15 years, landmines have taken the lives of more than 500 people.

Kroatien Minenräumen in Split

The mines were placed across Croatia in no particular pattern

"The war left Croatia with some 2,500 square kilometers of land filled with mines," said Diyana Plestina, the director of the government's demining office, in an interview with DW. "Since the end of the war, more than 500 million euros have been spent on clearing the mine fields."

Today, some 680 square kilometers still have mines. Clearing that area would cost another 500 million euros, Plestina estimates. "We've been given good loans by the World Bank," Plestina said.

Yet Croatia pays the lion's share of the demining process out of its national budget, with several state-owned companies also financing some of the programs. With Croatia looking to become the 28th member state of the European Union on July 1, 2013, the EU has also started contributing money from its own funds.

Rock-bottom competition

Currently, some 36 companies operate in the demining business, most of them small private firms.

The biggest, the state-owned Mungos company, employs around 80 deminers. Although they put their lives at risk in doing their job, they don't get paid much. Clearing one square meter of mines earns a worker between 0.5 and 1.2 euros.

The act of "dumping," or providing services at a temporary loss to squeeze out competition, has also become a proven way for demining businesses to hold ground in Croatia's mining market.

Minenräumung in Kroatien

Diyana Plestina speaks of "dumping" in demining

"As early as ten years ago, I called for a minimum price on demining, but it still hasn't been introduced," says Diyana Plestina. "It's like in a shop: you offer your services at lower rates than your competition, and when your competitors are ruined, you control the market. Some companies are indeed playing a very dirty game here."

Hardest hit by that tactic are the deminers themselves, who rarely know whether they'll have enough work in the future. It's also not unusual for miners go unpaid for months on end.

"It's the system's fault," said Tomislav Ledic, a member of a trade union, in an interview with DW. "Whoever offers the lowest price gets the job. That comes at the expense of workers' safety. At the moment, half the companies can't pay their staff their wages on a regular basis."

'When it's all over...'

Ledic also believes that job insecurity has a negative effect on the work itself. Deminers often worry whether their families will have enough to survive, he says, "whereas we should really only focus on our job."

According to Croatian criminal law, deminers bear the responsibility for the land that they have cleared of mines for the following ten years. Croatia has also tried to incorporate protections into those miners' laws. If there is an injury while clearing mines, that worker is eligible to the same rights as war veterans - including disability benefits. If they die on their job, their families retain the same rights as those of soldiers killed in action.

Minenräumarbeiten in Kroatien ARCHIVBILD

Deminers - as well as civilians - are constantly reminded of risks in mined areas

The men prefer not to think about such things, though. They wouldn't be able to do their jobs if they allowed feelings of anxiety.

They do, however, think about the future - and about what will happen when Croatia has been cleared of all the mines.

"We can't do normal jobs anymore," Styepan Tadic and Tomislav Ledic said. "After years of war and years of clearing mines we're just not capable of doing anything else."

Croatiaaims to be a mine-free country by 2019. That's also when the men want to retire.

In the meantime, they hope to avoid injury.

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