Turning a field back into a yard De-mining: Few jobs pay better in Bosnia, which has an estimated 30,000 minefields. For some, it's worth the risk.

Sun Journal

November 24, 1997|By Richard Mertens | Richard Mertens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The weeds grow thick around the Brotherhood and Unity Music School, a derelict two-story building in the middle of the city. Most people give the school a wide berth. It stands near the old battle lines that once divided Sarajevo. For a time, the Bosnian Serbs held prisoners in the school. The weeds conceal land mines the Serbs left behind.

Such scenes are common in Bosnia. Overgrown fields, abandoned buildings, wrecked villages -- these suggest the hidden menace that maims or kills an average of 38 people a month. The United Nations estimates that Bosnia has 750,000 mines in 30,000 minefields.

Now, on a mild fall day, a team of 20 de-miners is working to make one of the minefields a schoolyard again. Looking like gardeners in riot gear, they address the vegetation on their hands and knees. Creeping forward, they peer for tripwires. They cut the stalks with hedge clippers, skim the stubble with metal detectors and poke at the soil with metal prods. They work slowly and carefully, as methodical as bank clerks.

"The job is the same as any other," says Senad Halilovic, 32, as he stands and pauses. He wears a helmet, Plexiglas face shield and Kevlar vest capable of stopping shrapnel. "It's just a little bit more dangerous. You have to take a little more care."

At any rate, he is willing to accept the risk. Next to translating, few jobs in Bosnia pay better than mine clearing. De-miners can earn five times the average wage of $150 a month. With unemployment in the city at 50 percent, there's no shortage of help.

Mine clearing started slowly in Bosnia, but now 1,200 de-miners are working; most are former Bosnian soldiers. They clear mines around schools and apartment buildings, in farmland and along roads. Some of their work will help refugees return to their homes. Much of it supports reconstruction projects aimed at resuscitating the economy.

Halilovic and his colleagues work for Norwegian People's Aid, one of the few charities that clears mines. Mine clearing is mainly a business. Fifteen companies compete for jobs in Bosnia. Some are small and locally owned, but the work is dominated by a few international companies with experience in places such as Cambodia, Zimbabwe and Angola.

"It's a growing industry," says Clarke George of RONCO, a Washington-based de-mining company. More and more lucrative, too. In Bosnia, companies earn as much as $5 per square yard, or $25,000 to clear the area of a football field. Some Bosnian officials have sought to bestow mine-clearing contracts as patronage.

How dangerous is the work? Professional de-miners say that despite what some of their friends think, they are not crazy. Their training stresses safety. In the field, they rest frequently and are supervised closely. The better outfits have more people resting and watching than actually de-mining.

"It's a bit of a stereotype that it's so dangerous," says Eric Filippino, de-mining coordinator for Norwegian People's Aid. "There is a risk involved, but for the most part, these are predictable pieces of military hardware. If you follow procedures, it's not particularly dangerous.`

Still, people get hurt. There have been 30 mine-clearing accidents in Bosnia, with 26 serious injuries and 13 deaths. Many involved military de-miners, who follow different procedures than civilians and are subject to less supervision. But other de-miners slip up, too. Companies cut corners; concentration lapses.

One of the riskiest tasks falls to Zlatko Vezilic, 32, a former Yugoslav army officer. In the countryside, mines can be exploded where they lie. In the city, someone has to defuse them.

"At the moment when you're going toward the mine, that's when you feel fear," he says. "But when you pick it up, and you have it in your hand, you're not afraid anymore. Then it's yours."

L Not everyone who picks up mines in Bosnia is a professional.

"The problem is we don't have a lot of professional de-miners," says Esref Avdagic, 45, a Muslim refugee who lives north of Sarajevo. "We have to do it ourselves."

Last year, Bosnian authorities gave the Avdagic family a ruined house in Sovrla, a Serbian village that had been on the front lines during the war and then abandoned. The house was little more than a shell, without windows, doors, electricity or plumbing. A trench ran up into the yard. Neighborhood fields contained mines.

"Everyone else was afraid to touch them," recalls Ahmo Pijevo, a neighbor. "They were afraid even to get close to the mines, much less to pick them up. The municipality was informed many times about the mines, but nobody came to see about them. No one cared."

Avdagic, a former soldier, wasn't afraid. He cleared the hayfield behind his house so he could feed his cow and rabbits. He cleared fields and orchards for other villagers, too. Sometimes he would be gone the whole day and come home carrying a sack of mines. The local police would come and take them away.

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