Fleeing Kosovars confront new menace: land mines

Yugoslav troops burying more of the weapons as defense against invasion

May 25, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- On the crest of a mountain overlooking the green fields of his homeland, Besir Haliti's blood drained into the April snow.

The 14-year-old Kosovo Albanian already had suffered enough of war: Serbs burning homes around his town, the flight of family and friends, a 20-hour trek through mountains to refuge in Macedonia.

But with safety in sight, one more moment of savagery awaited. As Besir fled from Macedonian soldiers trying to block his entry into their country, he stepped on a land mine. The blast hurled him through the thin mountain air. A fellow refugee and three soldiers were injured.

"I couldn't walk. I couldn't hear," Besir remembered later as he lay in a hospital bed in Skopje, the Macedonian capital. The mine fragments shattered his leg, fractured his skull and ripped a 5-inch slash across his abdomen. "I thought I would lose all of the blood from my body."

The scars that now jag across Besir's 110-pound frame are symbolic of one of the increasing dangers facing refugees heading for Macedonia and Albania, according to United Nations officials and humanitarian groups: land mines.

With Yugoslavia's border guards periodically restricting departures of refugees and its soldiers burying mines in anticipation of a ground invasion, U.N. officials fear more refugees might trigger the weapons as they flee Kosovo through illegal, unmarked border crossings.

At least a dozen refugees have been killed in mine blasts, according to Macedonian figures and news reports. U.N. officials said they are expecting the toll to mount.

"We know that a substantial number of refugees are coming across unofficial crossings," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees.

Some of those fighting to ban land mines worldwide allege that Yugoslav troops are using the weapons not only to defend against invasion but to channel refugees toward the borders with Albania and Macedonia and to stop refugees from returning to Kosovo.

Marissa Vitagliano, coordinator for the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, said the group has received reports that Yugoslav military units have forced refugees to lay the mines.

"The Serbian army is using mines as a weapon of terror," Vitagliano said. "They don't have any military purpose. They're being used to control refugees."

Ironically, the new concerns over mines in the Kosovo conflict come at what should be a moment of triumph for the movement against the weapons. The international treaty to ban the use and production of land mines took effect March 1, though neither the United States nor Yugoslavia has signed the pact.

By not signing the treaty, the United States has robbed itself of the moral authority to speak out on Yugoslavia's use of land mines in Kosovo, Vitagliano said.

Long before the allied bombing began March 24, Yugoslav soldiers had begun mining the borders, according to NATO and Macedonian police reports.

The Yugoslavs planted anti-personnel mines, which are designed to maim and injure, and more powerful anti-tank mines, whose fragments can pierce thick layers of metal. Yugoslavia is one of the world's major producers of land mines.

After the NATO bombing began, the Yugoslavs stepped up their use of the weapons, officials said.

The most serious blast took place April 28, when about 35 refugees from villages just inside Kosovo tried to cross at a remote outpost three miles north of Blace, one of Macedonia's main border stations.

Mahmudije Hajdarovic said Yugoslav soldiers told them to go down a road that ran through no-man's land and then across the border. The group was in the middle of the neutral zone, she said, when she heard an enormous blast.

In the blast and its aftermath, seven people died, including two young boys and a 7-year-old girl, according to Hajdarovic. Four people, including her two sons, were injured.

Despite the dangers of the mines, there is little anyone can do.

Sandy Blyth, spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors military activity in Yugoslavia, said "civilized" countries mark their minefields with signs of a skull and crossbones as a warning. Observers have seen no such signs posted by the Yugoslav army, he said.

The mines will pose a danger far into the future. If a U.N. or NATO peacekeeping force were to enter Yugoslavia, one of the conditions probably would be that all minefields be marked and identified, Blyth said.

"This is going to be a major consideration on re-entering, even in a permissive environment," Blyth said. "It's going to be a very dangerous place to be."

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