Grisly harvest of war's hidden killers

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The Independent Online
"See it? There - a wire, across the stream. That's a live one." For a moment, I could not.

Then I caught the glint of the fine wire, almost invisible against the fast-running water, and, on the far side, the anti-personnel mine, hidden among the white, frosted vegetation on the river bank. Anybody stumbling over the wire as they attempted to cross the stream would set off the mine, blasting lethal fragments in all directions at leg or waist height.

Colonel Viktor Rusanov is head of the engineers for the Russian brigade based north of Tuzla. He estimated there were up to 6 million mines in Bosnia. Back in 1993, I had heard 3 million. One of the reasons why the front lines remained so static for so long was the combination of steep natural obstacles and mines. Without the resources of a first-rate army, it was impossible to break the deadlock without heavy casualties, which none of the warring factions could afford.

The death of three British soldiers on Sunday when their armoured vehicle ran over an anti-tank mine has reminded everyone that after the state of the roads, mines are the biggest problem. It is one that will become worse as people try to start cultivating the land again.

During the fighting, people were kept away from areas near the front line, but as they return, they will stumble on the deadly legacy of the war. "We lifted six mines yesterday," said Col Rusanov, who had lifted three himself.

"There are at least 15 minefields in this small area alone. I've ordered my men to stop trying to defuse mines this morning, as the fuses will be frozen. Ice on the detonator makes things more difficult, but we expect a thaw tomorrow."

In a neighbouring field, two Russian soldiers had finished putting up a white tape with yellow tabs - their standard marker for a minefield. "There. The Christmas decorations are complete," joked one of the soldiers, who had been combing the ground with a metal detector. We followed a muddy path across the field very carefully. Nobody was going to step off it, until we reached a small building. Col Rusanov showed us a map of the immediate area, which had been near the front line between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, north of Tuzla. It was covered with dozens of marks indicating minefields.

"All anti-personnel, in this area," said Col Rusanov. "There were some anti-tank mines on the road, but the Americans lifted them."

The main road to Bijeljina, which passes two of the Russian bases, was now clear of mines, but other roads in the area were still risky. A few days earlier the Bosnian Serb police had told a colleague a minor road across the zone of separation was clear, but on reaching the former front line, local people started shouting "mines". He reversed carefully, driving in his tracks.

The British vehicle that stumbled on an anti-tank mine west of Mrkonjic Grad was not so lucky, but they are normally less dangerous than the far more numerous anti-personnel mines, which have killed and maimed far more people round the world than nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. In Bosnia, clearing them at a rate of six a day here, six a day there, it will take a long time to dispose of 6 million.