Explosive disposal experts say Kosovo to be clear of mines by 2013 (Republic Of Kosovo)

Nita Vula walked towards her supervisor, arm outstretched, with a smile across her face. A spider bite had just caused her hand to swell to nearly double its normal size, but she was not worried. The bite was nothing compared to the dangers she faces every day at her job. Vula is the only female de-miner that works in the Civil Protection Brigade (CPB) division of the Kosovo Protection Corps (TMK).


Each day they are making progress in clearing Kosova of land mines, cluster bombs, and other unexploded ordinance. Children and farmers can then feel safer to use that land. And officials predict that the country will be free of unexploded mines within 5 years.

Since the war ended, about 44.5 million square meters have been cleared of land mines. In the last two and a half years, de-mining projects have found 5,000 explosive munitions including mines, bombs, and artillery shells across Kosova, according to a TMK spokesman.

Thanks to these de-miners, accidents involving land mines are "very limited now" compared to immediately after the war, said Ahmed Sallova of the office of the Kosova Protection Corps Coordinator (OKPCC) which coordinates all land mine removal projects within Kosova.

In the last eight years, more than 600 people have had land mine accidents. At least 112 of these accidents have been fatal while more than 400 people have lost limbs. The last accident occurred 1 April in Hariliq [Ariljaca], near the Prishtina airport, where a villager was killed while searching for scrap metal to sell.
The most recent mine was found earlier this week.

At the site were Vula works - Shtajk [Stajk] near Gorozhup [Gorozup] - more than 3,800 square meters have been cleared of land mines cluster bombs and other explosives.

Vula is one of 16 who work more than seven hours every weekday at Shtajk. Each day, they suit up in their body armour that weighs more than 15 kilos, put on their helmets, check their metal detectors, and cross over to the other side of the double-layered yellow warning tape that reads "mine mina mine."

Typically, these specialists work in their protective gear for one hour at a time and then take a 30-minute break. On hot days, de-miners work for 30 minutes at a time.

After each break, they must recheck their metal detectors by placing them over a metal stick in the ground. If they hear the buzzing of the detector, they can go and work in the field. If they don't, they must turn back.

This mine field has two stations. Each group has an ambulance. Before the TMK starts working in any site, they check the distance to the nearest hospital. From Shtajk, it is 30 kilometres to the Prizren hospital.

Visitors are greeted with a paper requesting their name, the date, and their blood type.

It is TMK policy to stop de-mining when visitors come. One whistle signifies to the workers to stop working. Two whistles mean they can begin again.
The workers get to enjoy a beautiful view overlooking Prizren that few experience from this booby-trapped hillside.

The mines were planted along old pathways on the Albanian border in 1998 and 1999 by Serb forces to prevent militants crossing the border from coming back and fighting for Kosova. This mine field lies six kilometres from the Albanian border.

Each person cleans about 25 square meters per day in the mountains where the terrain is rugged and full of vegetation. On flat land, each person can clean up to 100 square meters per day.

If workers find a mine, they stop all activity, call the team leader, and examine the situation. They remove all material over the mine, stick by stick. Then they excavate the mine and check for trip wires. If the mine is not damaged and can be moved, the workers put the mines together and detonate them at the same time.

If the mine is damaged and can't be moved, the workers explode it in place to avoid risk of accidents. The mine is attached to an electric detonator and everyone must move at least 100 meters away. For an anti-tank mine (which are much bigger than antipersonnel mines), people need to be more than 250 meters away.

There have been many accidents with animals here in the foothills of the mountains that mark the border between Kosova and Albania. Skender Hoxha, Chief of Staff of the CPB, said, "Animals are our best cleaners here."

Hoxha said that this area should be cleared by the end of this year.

Hoxha and Admir Berisha, Project Manager of The HALO Trust, both said that Kosova should be clean of land mines in five years.

Sallova said that the cleaning could go more quickly if they had enough funding to hire more de-miners. "If we receive more budgets, or more NGOs, of course we will clean more."

Immediately following the war, there were seventeen NGOs working to clear Kosova of mines and other explosives. In December 2001, the United Nations' Mine Action Centre (UNMAC) handed the responsibility to TMK. Most of the NGOs left because they majority of the country was clean. Others left because of funding and licensing issues. Now the responsibility falls on just three groups: TMK, the HALO Trust, and Mine Awareness Trust (MAT), all coordinated by OKPCC.

OKPCC prioritizes which sites gain immediate attention, according to need. If that land is needed for development, it will be cleaned sooner than another area. The agency has a budget of 1 million euros this year and expects the same amount next year.

TMK receives funding from many sources, including private donors and governments. The de-mining projects receive 120,000 per year, of which 50 per cent goes to salaries. De-miners earn about 220 per month.

CPB employs about 350 people and 134 are de-miners.

Sallova said that they don't have trouble finding people for the job. He said many who work today had worked for one of the NGOs in Kosova following the war.

Berisha said that de-mining is a safe job if people follow their safety regulations.

Although none of the de-miners working for TMK has been injured from an explosion since the de-mining work started in 2000, it is a stressful job, full of risks. Vula relaxes after work by playing basketball and other sports. On some evenings, she joins her colleagues at a restaurant near the mine field where they eat pizza. Everyone goes back home in the evenings.

The workers said they like working in the field. It becomes routine.

When asked why they like working as de-miners, they said through a translator there are "many motives to work this job." Hoxha explained that when they are finished cleaning an area, it means that children are free to go and play.

Von: 01.08.2008, www.icbl.org

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