Feature 28 Jul 15

Serbia’s Deminers Harvest a Deadly Crop

An unexploded grenade found on a construction site in Belgrade shed light on a danger that Serbia still faces - undiscovered bombs and mines left over from a century of wars.

Ivana Nikolic BIRN Paracin
A deminer in Paracin. Photo: BIRN.

After the WWII-era grenade was found at the weekend on a construction site in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Cukarica, locals are still worried that there could be more unexploded ammunition lying around undiscovered in the area, media have reported.

The discovery of the Cukarica grenade is not an isolated incident. In the past few years, particularly since the NATO bombing of the country in 1999, many unexploded mines and bombs have been found around Serbia.

One of the most notorious incidents was in 2012 in Pasuljanske Livade near the central Serbian town of Cuprija, when two cadets from the Serbian Military Academy died and seven others were wounded after a leftover grenade exploded.

The unexploded ammunition, bombs and mines across Serbia are left over from World War I, World War II, the war in Croatia 1991-95, the NATO bombing and the conflict with Albanian insurgents in southern Serbia in 2001.

Today, 14 years after the last conflict, 24 per cent of the country’s territory remains at some sort of the risk, said Branislav Jovanovic from the Mine Action Centre, the only state body dealing with mine-clearing operations in Serbia.

A field where unexploded ordnance still lies. Photo: BIRN.

Jovanovic said that a lot has been done to tackle the problem – all the minefields dating from 1991-95 on the border with Croatia have been cleared, while other mines and cluster bombs are supposed to be removed over the next two to three years.

“At the moment, the only mines in Serbia are in [the southern town of] Bujanovac, while cluster ammunition is located there but in Sjenica, Raska and Tutin as well,” Jovanovic said.

All the known sites where there is unexploded ammunition have been properly marked, he added.

‘A job like any other’

Goran Ilic has been working as a deminer for more than two decades. Photo: BIRN.

One of those marked sites is a former military warehouse in the town of Paracin in central Serbia with unexploded ordnance, which BIRN visited.

“There are around 14 locations [in Serbia] where warehouses exploded, some of them date back to WWII, and Paracin is one of them,” explained Jovanovic as he stood in front of the Mine Action Centre’s barracks in the town.

A Serbian Army ammunition warehouse located on the outskirts of Paracin exploded on October 19, 2006. “So far we have found around 13,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance [from the warehouse],” Jovanovic said.

The nearby fields are still full of unexploded devices and around 30 Serbian and Russian deminers from Moscow’s state agency Emerkom are currently working to clear them.

“We are now entering a dangerous zone,” said the Russian driver as we left the barracks and went down a narrow road to the fields. Getting out of the car was possible, but only within areas marked off as safe with a white rope.

In the fields, deminers clad in helmets and protective suits worked away with metal-detectors, focused on their task.

“This is just a job like any other. Some people are teachers, others are doctors. Some others are deminers,” the Russian driver said.

Goran Ilic, one of the team leaders, said he had been demining for the past 22 years.

“I started in the minefields in Bosnia right after the war,” the 60-year-old said. But working in Bosnia was tougher because there were many more minefields. Ilic said that 40 deminers died in Bosnia before he left to take his current job in Serbia six years ago.

A demining machine in Paracin. Photo: BIRN.

He recalled how one of his friends was also killed by a mine at Mount Kopaonik in Serbia in 2013 – an accident that highlighted such explosive devices’ deadly purpose. “That mine was simply waiting to kill someone, it was set up just for that,” he said.

Nearby lay dozens of unexploded devices that have been found already this year – but these are just a fraction of the total number that need to be dealt with in Serbia, explained Jovanovic.

“When we finish all these, we have some 150 aerial bombs which are the hardest to deal with,” he said. “And finishing that job might take up to 20 to 30 years.”

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