Nearly two decades after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended, more than 120,000 land mines are still buried beneath the former front lines. The country’s impoverished rural population suffers the most: For lack of alternatives, the surrounding forest is often the only source of income. Disasters are inevitable.
“It’s the helplessness that makes one crazy,” Ibrahim Bijelic sighs quietly, hands on his face. One and a half years ago, Ibrahim experienced his darkest day. The 38-year-old man from the small town of Olovo, about 50 kilometres north of Sarajevo, tells his story. “It happened in the nearby woods, not far from our house. I have been to that place collecting firewood again and again. The area was considered safe and there haven’t been any accidents in the past, but this time…”
On that day in August 2012, an anti-personnel mine exploded next to him. The man now has numerous pieces of shrapnel in his body, and surgery remains too dangerous for the time being.
But it is not his physical wounds that haunt Bijelic every night. His six-year-old son Tarik was also in the woods with him, and triggered the mine unintentionally, with a large tree branch. Seriously injured himself, Ibrahim tried to rush Tarik to the hospital. “I carried the boy’s body and walked through the forest as fast as I could,” he says with a trembling voice. When they reached the street, a passing neighbour stopped his car. But it was too late. Tarik had died. One of the pieces of shrapnel had pierced the boy’s heart.
Tarik’s fate is merely one example of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s violent legacy, even two decades after its civil war ended. An estimated 120,000 mines remain, according to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre. Since the military conflicts ended, more than 1,700 people have been involved in land mine accidents. Nearly 600 of them died, with the rest injured, some seriously. In many cases, one or more limbs had to be amputated.
To clear the remaining mines, the country needs about 40m euros ($54m) per year, says Sasa Obradovic from the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre. Bosnia’s goal to be mine-free by 2009 had to be postponed for a decade, but for some experts, even this delayed date seems utopian. The country does not lack professional staff or technical equipment, but it does need money. Furthermore, previous mine-clearing had mostly been done in urban areas. Many rural areas remain extremely vulnerable.
As long as there is a single mine in Bosnia, as long as a single person is in danger, our work is not done yet. We need to get our country back.
Although most minefields are marked, accidents continue to occur. Ten people were involved in land mine accidents in January 2014 alone, including a ten-year-old boy who died in an explosion. Children like Tarik have become victims of a war that ended before they were born.
“It is pure poverty,” says Amir Mujanovic, managing director of the Landmine Survivors Initiative, explaining why people continue to go into the woods despite the danger. The NGO has made it its mission to assist mine accident survivors and their families, both financially and psychologically, until their reintegration into society.
“It can’t be enough to set up red warning signs with skulls before each forest and hoping that people will make a big circle around the danger area,” says Mujanovic.
Razija Alijc tells a story of tragedy and desperation. “For us, gathering wood and fruits in the forest has always been the only livelihood,” recounts the 54-year-old woman from the village of Rijeka Lukavica. Job opportunities are scarce. Apart from some agricultural activities, people in the area live mainly by selling firewood. “Life was hard, but we were able to come to terms with the situation,” says Alijc.
Surrounded by mines
But in the early 1990s, war broke out and everything changed suddenly. The former home became a front line and the family had to flee. When they returned, a huge minefield had surrounded their house. It did not take long before the tragedy took its course.
“Nedzad was the first.” Razija begins the chronology of a family tragedy. Her son was 19 when he died in 1996, as he stepped on a mine while gathering wood. Less than two years later, there was an explosion near the family home. This time it was Razija’s husband.
With folded arms, she sits next to Ruzmir, her youngest son, and continues her story. “Two years ago, the sound of the explosion was so loud that I even heard it in the kitchen.” Yusuf, her second son, and his brother-in-law had been killed. Ruzmir, 19, now the only remaining son of Razija, turns to the side and says softly, “I also go into the woods. One has to provide sustenance for the family.”
The day after Tariq’s death, Amir Mujanovic of the Landmine Survivors Initiative visited the Bijelic family. A few weeks later, the Landmine Survivors Initiative was able to provide the family with a small tractor and trailer. Ibrahim smiles when he speaks of the gift, made possible with the financial support of the United Nations Development Programme and Norwegian Aid. “How else could I feed my family?” asks Ibrahim. With the agricultural equipment, Ibrahim can now search for firewood in more secure areas, away from the former front lines.
‘We need to get our country back’
“It’s the least we need to do when people are harmed by these remnants of war,” Mujanovic says. Who receives what type of support varies from case to case. Women are often supported with a greenhouse so they can earn a living from growing vegetables. Men often receive agricultural equipment so they can take care of their land or transport material. The NGO tries to avoid providing money.
In Zivinice, a small village near Tuzla, Ajka Ibrahimovic presents several baskets full of vegetables from her greenhouse’s most recent harvest. Until recently the 50-year-old, who was severely injured by a cluster bomb, was financially dependent on friends and relatives. After the war, she was classified as a 20 percent disabled veteran from the state and received a pension equivalent to a bit less than 50 euros ($68). About two years ago, she met a member of the initiative. After her case was evaluated by the organisation, it was decided that they would provide a greenhouse to Ajka. Within a short time, Ajka has established herself as a successful small business owner and now sells their harvest throughout the village. Further support was no longer necessary.
To date, the Landmine Survivors Initiative says it has helped nearly 3,000 affected people. “What we really need to do is to clear the whole country of land mines,” says Mujanovic. “As long as there is a single mine in Bosnia, as long as a single person is in danger, our work is not done yet. We need to get our country back.”
A version of this photo gallery was originally published by Transterra Media.