Written by Elise Becker, Nejc Horvat, and Marija Trln
U.S. Government-Funded Initiative will free the city of Sarajevo and surrounding municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina from landmines by clearing over 8 million square meters of land currently contaminated by landmines, saving and improving hundreds of thousands of lives.
"I am a mine survivor. During the siege of Sarajevo, in 1994 I stepped on the landmine on mountain Igman. Igman was a famous Olympic mountain and sports field in the 80’s, which turned into a battlefield in the 90's. I lost my right leg below the knee there." - Mirsad Mirojević, Director of the Sitting Volleyball Club Fantomi in Sarajevo
The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which culminated in the deaths of 100,000 people and displacement of millions more, ended nearly 25 years ago. Yet, the millions of landmines and other unexploded devices utilized during the 1992 – 1995 conflict continue to litter BiH soil, and the country is still considered today to be one of the most severely mine-contaminated countries in the world. The Landmine Monitor reports that an approximately 1,000 square kilometers, or 247,000 acres of soil in Bosnia-Herzegovina is suspected of contamination by landmines and unexploded remnants of war. Even the capital city of Sarajevo, a bustling metropolis, and surrounding municipalities continue to suffer from contamination. The mines threaten the safety of citizens and visitors, and prohibit safe movement and the development of land for agriculture and infrastructure purposes.
In April 2019, the U.S. Government, which has been a leading donor in the fight to remove landmines and ERW in Bosnia-Herzegovina, approved a major grant to ITF Enhancing Human Security for the Mine Free Sarajevo Project. This project, implemented in partnership with the Mine Detection Dog Center in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Marshall Legacy Institute, is clearing landmines and other unexploded remnants of war from the city of Sarajevo and surrounding municipalities of Novi Grad, Stari Grad, Vogošća, East Stari Grad and East Ilidža. The scope of the project is massive, as it aims to release 8 million square meters of land, or about 2,000 American football fields, which remain contaminated by landmines, or suspected of contamination, in these areas. At the April 4, 2019 event to announce the start of the project, U.S. Ambassador to BiH, Eric Nelson, said, “The United States of America is proud to be the donor to the Mine Free Sarajevo project, because this brilliant initiative aims to free Sarajevo and East Sarajevo from a legacy of war. Our desire and goal is to overcome ideological and rhetorical minefields that do not allow citizens to find peace in themselves they deserve, as well as the strength and courage to go on.” Ambassador Nelson noted at the April 4 project launch that Mine Free Sarajevo is the largest contribution of the U.S. Government to a specific demining project in 10 years.
Stories like Mirsad’s are all too common in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnia-Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC) records 8,388 casualties from mines and unexploded ordnance to date. Mirsad was in his 30’s when the war started. He was a member of the Bosnian Army and fought in Sarajevo where he lived with his family. In 1994 while fighting on Igman Mountain, Mirsad stepped on an antipersonnel mine. He said he will never forget the scene after the explosion that changed his life forever. His army boot was left hanging on the tree, while Mirsad was lying in blood, looking up at the sky and his boot. The place where Mirsad stepped on the mine was hard to reach and it took three hours for his comrades to reach him and evacuate him from the minefield. While Mirsad was in a terrible pain, his comrades had to carry him in their arms to the safe area, and rushed him to the hospital.
“I was taken to a hospital where doctors amputated my right leg below the knee at the improvised hospital – practically a basement in an apartment building. Two and half months I suffered various infections and finally started to recover physically.”
But his mental recovery was much harder. Mirsad lost a lot of weight, describing a state of dizziness he was living in for a long time. He did not believe that any time in the future would be able to stand on his own two feet again.
“My family helped me in every way”, Mirsad says. “The only way I saw myself going through life was to get into some kind of sport... any kind. But there is also one very important moment for me, for which I believe made a crucial change to my personality, it turned me from very pessimistic into optimistic. When I saw a man standing in front of me, on his two feet again, wearing prosthesis, that was the moment of change. After I got myself a prosthetic leg, I decided I will support mine survivors and give them hope the same way hope was given to me.“
Selma Gušo was only eight years old when, walking with her father on Žuč Hill near Sarajevo three years after the war was over and peace had been declared, her foot found a landmine. Selma’s father had been stationed on Žuč Hill during the war, spending countless nights in the trenches above the city. Selma’s family, living in Sarajevo during the siege, worried that he would not return, but thankfully he survived the war and Selma’s family started to live normal lives again. Three years after the war, Selma and her family went to Žuč hill to have a picnic and enjoy the great view over the beautiful city of Sarajevo. Selma was almost nine, holding hands with her younger cousin.
Her father was walking in front of them, on a path, showing them around as he tried to remember all the places he has been during the war. All the while, they were totally unaware of the mine danger everywhere around them. There were no mine signs to warn them of the threat. Suddenly the explosion happened. Young Selma stepped on an antipersonnel mine. She felt terrible sensation in her left leg, and immediately fell to the ground. She only saw everyone was screaming and running around her, but as she was in the state of shock, she had no idea what had happened to her. Her father took her in his arms and rushed her to the hospital. Luckily, nobody else was hurt. At the hospital, her leg was amputated below the knee and she spent three months, including her ninth birthday, at the hospital for additional surgeries and amputations.
On an unseasonably warm December afternoon, along a wooded road in Matijaševo Brdo, Novi Grad municipality, brave demining teams from the Mine Detection Dog Center in BiH (MDDC) work to search for landmines and other unexploded ordnance. The area is one of several tasks within Novi Grad municipality that the MDDC is tackling over the course of the Mine Free Sarajevo project. This particular site stretches 260,000 square meters of land, and is adjacent to a well-traveled road and residences. Local residents are thrilled to see clearance operations underway, as the minefields across the street from their houses have been a constant threat and menace. One resident said that he is a nature lover, and is unable to enjoy the beautiful woods so close to his home, while another resident said she keeps her grandchildren under her watchful eye when they come to visit, to ensure they don’t cross the road into the minefield. Both residents survived the war, but the presence of mines so close to their homes is a constant reminder of the gruesome past, 25 years later. Asked for their reactions to the mine clearance project, one resident responded: “We will be able to breathe freely, and live safely. It is hard to describe. We are very thankful for this project, because it means that we will finally be free.”
The MDDC Operations Officer at the Matijaševo Brdo site states that over 14,000 square meters of land at the site had already been searched through the systematic survey process, utilizing manual teams consisting of 8 deminers, a team leader, medic and quality control officer. There had been three mine accidents at this location over the years, killing one person and injuring two more.
MDDC teams have been deployed to the Mine Free Sarajevo project for nearly a year; and have made great strides towards rendering Sarajevo and surrounding municipalities mine free. MDDC started with Stari Grad municipality, which is the city of Sarajevo and the oldest and most historically significant portion of the city. MDDC searched all remaining areas that were suspected of landmine contamination during the late spring and early summer 2019, finding multiple antipersonnel landmines and pieces of unexploded ordnance. Stari Grad was declared mine free at a ceremony in fall of 2019. In the fall and winter 2019, MDDC teams tackled mine-contaminated areas in East Stari Grad, Novi Grad and Vogošća municipalities. Local leaders have expressed their gratitude for this project. Bojo Gašanović, Mayor of East Stari Grad municipality, stated that, “Safety comes first, and as a mayor I am proud to be part of this positive story, and happy to be able to finally say to the people they will live safely in future. There were also a couple of very important development projects that were stopped due to mine contamination. I am grateful to the donor- United States - for helping provide productive mine free future for all our citizens." One of the development projects that has been held up due to the presence of landmines is a plan to build a sports and recreational tourist facility on Trebević Mountain. One-third of the area where construction was planned was contaminated by landmines. Mayor Gašanović says, “Now that the area is being released through Mine Free Sarajevo 2020 project, finally we will be able to fulfill our goal.”
As of the end of 2019, MDDC teams had located and removed over 250 mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance. Work will continue until all of Sarajevo and surrounding municipalities are rendered mine free.
After sustaining his injury and losing his leg, Mirsad received a prosthetic leg and started training as a sitting volleyball player. He soon joined the Sitting Volleyball Club Fantomi in Sarajevo. Mirsad is now the manager of the club, and says that sports and the community he has formed with fellow sitting volleyball players have been the keys to his successes, making him stronger physically and mentally. He also continues to support landmine survivors; providing them with advice, comfort and understanding that only a fellow survivor can understand. Mirsad strives to motivate other survivors to try new technologies, stand up and overcome, and not to fall into despair. Mirsad says of the Mine Free Sarajevo project:
“When I heard about the Mine Free Sarajevo 2020 initiative and the implementation of land release project in five municipalities, I felt true happiness. The city I love and live in will finally be safe. Our mountains will be safe and I love these mountains. I am grateful to the United States, and to everyone involved in this project.”
Following her mine accident at just 8 years old, Selma has grown into an accomplished woman. Struggling through puberty, Selma faced her fears of being rejected by her peers, and became involved in sports, swimming, and now, advocacy. Selma has attended international forums to discuss the problems that landmine survivors’ face, hosted a workshop with MLI’s Children Against Mines Program (CHAMPS), earned a master’s degree in public relations, and became an educator for women with disabilities. “I have no fear or shame of presenting myself with a prosthetic leg.”
Asked about Mine Free Sarajevo, Selma says:
"I was born and raised in Sarajevo, and to me this project means a lot. Sarajevo is a city with many different cultures and nationalities. When the project is fully completed, and the goal of Sarajevo free of mines finally becomes a reality in 2020, we will be able to live and move without the fear of being injured by mines, live together and leave the past behind us. In fact, we will live completely and enjoy our city and our beautiful country. I am a mine survivor and I live the life with disability due to mines. I would be the happiest person if my country one day becomes free of mines."
When the goal is achieved and Sarajevo is finally safe from the danger posed by landmines, ITF Enhancing Human Security and the Marshall Legacy Institute plan to organize a large celebration that will include a number of VIPs who wish to show their support to the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina and this important humanitarian cause. It will be a wonderful opportunity for everyone to celebrate the first time that the area is landmine-free in more than 25 years.
The Mine Free Sarajevo consortium, led by ITF Enhancing Human Security and including the Mine Detection Dog Center in BiH and the Marshall Legacy Institute, wish to thank the U.S. Government for their generous donation that is making this possible.