Removing the traces of war
The 1990’s saw one of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since the Second World War, this conflict left thousands killed, injured or living as refugees outside their home countries. With the break-up of Yugoslavia and the resulting conflict between former Yugoslav countries the war ravaged the former socialist utopia from 1991 till 2001. At the end of the war Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia were all independent countries. Kosovo did not achieve independence for itself until February 17th 2008. Kosovo has always been a hotly disputed region and has been claimed by both Albania and Serbia, both citing historic rights to the country sighting its historical importance to their country and people. Kosovo today is populated by over 80% Albanian and less than 20% Serbian population, living mostly in a Serbian enclave within Kosovo.
The conflict in the 90’s between the Yugoslav states left many victims on all sides and the memories are still recent for the people of the former Yugoslav countries. For the Albanian population of Kosovo the memories are more prevalent. Since gaining independence in 2008 Kosovo has grown in every aspect, their economy has improved and a budding tourist industry is beginning to flourish. Many Kosovars who were left as refugees across Europe have since been helping their families with financial support and this has helped to bolster the country and improve the situation for the Albanian population.
When, in the United Kingdom, we remember the terrible conflict that tore Yugoslavia apart we often picture Srebrenica, or the rabble rousing Slobodan Milosevic giving a passionate speech to an enthusiastic crowd. We forget that the atrocities committed by the Serbian forces are far more far reaching than just what happened in Bosnia Herzegovina, they happened all over Yugoslavia and particularly to the Albanian population of Kosovo. The year 1998 saw the worst atrocities in Kosovo that left over 12,000 dead, thousands injured and several thousands spread across the world and suspended in neighbouring countries as refugees. The intensity and aggression by the Serb forces in Kosovo still stands out today for its brutality. The oppression of the police force and government were unpanelled in the Balkans. The Serb forces deployed troops all across Kosovo particularly in 1998, these troops committed what can only be described as ethnic cleansing of towns and villages all in the name of a ‘Greater Serbia’. Whilst in Kosovo I heard many chilling stories of atrocities committed during the war and the harassment of the Albanian population by the Serbs, Serb forces shouting ‘Why are you here, you’re Albanian? Go back to Albania’. It’s hardly surprising that thousands fled into Albania, neighbouring countries and across Europe. The Albanian population of Kosovo during these years fought a war of independence, or even survival, thousands joined the volunteer army of the Kosovan Liberation Army KLA. The KLA had its HQ in Albania and launched a guerrilla war in Kosovo for the liberation of the country.
The KLA fought the Serb forces alone until 1999 when NATO began strategic bombing of Serbian military positions, supply routes and military installations. The Serbian forces used land mines, as they frequently had in the conflict, both as a defensive military strategy and ultimately to hinder the movement of the KLA. Kosovo after the war has been left with thousands of unexploded mines and ordnances left by the Serbian forces and Serbian paramilitary units which were in operation in Kosovo often, it’s claimed, with uncoordinated attacks and plans. The mines were placed all over the country and along the Albanian border to stop KLA forces filtering through into Kosovo and also to stem the flow of refugees either leaving or re-entering Kosovo. NATO’s bombing whilst helping the KLA regain their country also added to the problem of unexploded ordnances in the country, at the time NATO used cluster bombs to combat Serb installations, unfortunately some of these cluster bombs didn’t explode on impact and remain until this day a threat along with the land mines to future generations of Kosovars.
From the end of the war in 1999 the task of removing the mines and unexploded devices (UED) began. In total around 27 civilian mine removal charities and NGO’s began work, both in removing UED’s and training the KLA in explosive removal and clearances. Over the years other NATO countries have contributed to the removal and training in Kosovo, and the results are impressive. Today Kosovo can boast of having arguably the best mine disposal teams in the world. In over 15 years of working in dangerous areas, they have cleared well in excess of 100,000 square metres of land and over 10,000 unexploded devices, all this without a single casualty in their removal teams.
The KLA over the years has developed from one of the most effective guerrilla fighting armies to an exemplary modern force dealing with a number of task from Search and Rescue, Hazardous Material Disposal, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) to Fire Fighting. After the end of the war many members of the KLA returned to their homes and civilian life taking different jobs all over the country, rebuilding their homes and starting anew. In 1999 with the end of the war the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 was applied in Kosovo, therefore putting Kosovo under the authority of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The remaining KLA joined with NATO forces and formed KFOR which was ultimately a NATO-led Kosovo Force. Within KFOR there were NATO forces from various member states and Kosovan personnel, the Kosovan personnel were categorised within KFOR as the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC). Then in February 2008 when Kosovo became independent a development plan began again with KFOR. The plan was to allow Kosovo to have an independent security force known as the Kosovan Security Force (KSF). In early January 2009 names of selected personnel from the KPC were put forward to join the new KSF. After being vetted by NATO around 1400 former members of the KPC were selected to serve in the KSF as officers and normal rank and file troops within the KSF. Today the KSF are the main force within Kosovo but also work closely with a reduced KFOR presence in the country.
The Explosive Ordnance Disposal has been left to the KSF and their highly trained teams, within Explosive Ordnance Disposal there are three categories. The first is mine field clearance, the removal of land mines across the country sometimes in small areas and sometimes in large expanses of land also known as mine fields. This is the somewhat traditional image of Explosive Ordnance Disposal most reported on, they first detect and mark the device, then carefully remove the soil and surrounding debris to safely give access to the mine. Depending if the fuse to the mine can be removed or deactivated, the mine can either be removed from the ground, taken to a safe location and dismantled or eliminated with a controlled explosion. If however the mine cannot be safely extracted a controlled detonation of the device is used where it lays. The second is Battle Field Clearance (BFC), this is the removal of projectiles, rockets, grenades, artillery shells, mines and in this case a high number of cluster bomb fragments. There are two approaches to BFC, above ground and below ground. BFC like other EOD can be painfully slow to remove, above means visually checking trees and above ground for munitions, below means scanning the area with the metal detector. The same preference for removal applies to BFC, to remove if possible but failing that a safe extraction with a controlled detonation is used. The third EOD is Emergency Ordnance Disposal Response (EOD) this is when an explosive device is discovered in somebody’s land or in a public space. The EOD response teams are available 24/7 all year round, depending on the situation the devices are either removed so as not to damage civilian property, or the surrounding area is cleared and as a last choice a controlled detonation is performed.
The weather in Kosovo adds complications to Explosive Ordnance Disposal, in the summer there can be sweltering heat and in the winter bitter cold and relentless snow. The mine clearance and Battle Field Clearances are in operation between April to November every year. The Emergency Ordnance Disposal teams are in operation all year round in cases of emergency. The deputy commander who showed me around some of the BFC sights said the EOD response team is still busy even today, 15 years on from the war, they receive an average of at least one call a day. With Explosive Ordnance Disposal being a very demanding job there is a rigorous fitness regime and standards that all the soldiers of the KSF are required to meet. Working in intense heat with protective clothing can easily cause fatigue and the care and safety of the KSF is of paramount importance to every member. The Deputy commander of one Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams told me of the great pride and pleasure his team take in their work and how their aim is to make ‘Kosovo a safer place for future generations’. It was said that any member of the team would rather stay in his unit doing the disposal job than work in any other sector, of course an order is an order but if given the choice they would all choose to carry on their work. When the teams meet in the morning, after their briefing the commander asks them all how they are feeling, if anybody is feeling ill or emotionally unwell they are kept off the sites. It is this care of their forces that has maintained a high standard among their teams and kept the casualty rate at zero.
In conversation with the deputy commander within the KSF he elaborated on some of the lesser known facts surrounding Explosive Ordnance Disposal in the west. In 1999 NATO had estimated and found around 130 dangerous areas, either from mines or unexploded munitions. Since 1999 till present, on top of NATO’s estimates of 130 danger zones, the KSF have found a further 620 mine fields, 4520 dangerous areas varying in sizes and received more than 2600 EOD calls from civilians. Over 50 million square meters of land affected by UED have been cleared by the de-mining units and over 10,000 UEDs have been safely removed. The casualties are fortunately low in proportion to the number of devices discovered within the country, since 1999, 116 civilians have lost their lives as a result of UEDs and 458 have been injured.
The deputy commander took me to view a BFC in ‘Freedom Park’ near Ferizaj, Freedom Park is today a national park and has been a favourite destination for holiday makers in the Balkans for a long time. Freedom Park can boast a huge variety of wildlife and natural beauty of all types, but as fate would have it Freedom Park runs along a strategic stretch of territory and was thus utilised by the Serbian forces during the war. Freedom Park gave the Serbians a strategic advantage in controlling parts of southern Kosovo, they placed a munitions factory here and an ammunition depot that supplied their forces across southern Kosovo.
NATO’s strategic bombing from March 24th 1999 to June 10th 1999 in Kosovo had a detrimental effect on the Serbian forces. The Serbian military installations in Freedom Park were bombed by NATO in 1999 causing a huge explosion which destroyed the military installation but unfortunately this resulted in a great deal of unexploded ordnance being scattered up to hundreds of square metres into the surrounding areas. NATO’s bombing was not entirely accurate in 1999 and caused the destruction of many businesses, public buildings and resulted in between 489- 528 civilian deaths, also the cluster bombs used in certain areas didn’t explode on impact. As a result of unexploded cluster bombs Freedom Park has a high number of cluster bomb fragments as well as thousands of other UED to contend with removing. The UEDs are scattered across huge expanses of land and difficult terrain.
I met the team as they prepared to begin their days work, their equipment was laid out in an impressive array on a ground sheet. The equipment has been donated by the US government and vigorously maintained to a high standard by the KSF. The stories I had heard of the immense professionalism, pride and camaraderie among the de-mining units of the KSF was instantly apparent when I met the soldiers.
Another aspect that makes the KSF stand out particularly in the Balkans is their integration and assimilation of minorities into civilian and military life. Kosovo is an ethnically diverse country and this is reflected within the KSF, all different minorities and genders are represented within it. One man in this unit was from the Ashkali, one of the Albanian speaking ethnic cultural minorities which mainly inhabit Kosovo. As well as the Ashkali there are also Bosnian, Turkish and Balkan Egyptians serving within the KSF de-mining teams and throughout the KSF.
The staff Sergeant at the beginning of every day undertakes a briefing using a white board with all the surrounding terrain marked to show which land has been cleared and where UED were found. They work by drawing the map, dividing it into grids, then systematically sweeping through the grids to remove any UED discovered. There is always a paramedic present who has been trained extensively, and practices the drive to the nearest hospital every week. Between the grids marked on the map there are 2 metre safety lines so as in the case of an emergency there can be fast evacuation of any wounded personnel to the paramedic. After the briefing the staff Sergeant has a brief conversation with all the soldiers to check that everybody is in good health and ready for the work ahead. The team then collect their equipment and protective clothing and test the metal detectors in a pre-made testing ground to make sure everything is working properly. The team then go to their allotted positions and begin work painstakingly clearing the terrain of UED in the hot Balkan sun. One aspect that makes their job even more difficult is that certain types of rocks due to their mineral composition can set off the detector, so invariably sometimes they can end up clearing an area to only discover one of these rocks. In freedom Park since April 2015 – August 2015 the team has cleared over 150,000 square meters and uncovered and removed over 450 UED, ranging from mines, grenades, cluster munitions, artillery shells to rockets. This team works at an astonishing pace, as well as other teams around the country, but still even with this level of professionalism, speed and expertise the KSF estimates currently that working at this pace they will have the discovered areas cleared in the next 10 years.
When in 1999 the war ended and the Serbian forces retreated back into Serbia they left behind 620 maps that were discovered and revealed details of where a number of mines were placed by the Serbian army. But many maps were lost or destroyed by the Serbian forces and Serbian paramilitary units who were using mines are supposed to have had little or no coordination with the Serb forces or at least have not readily come forward with details or where they had placed mines.
The war in Yugoslavia came to an end in 1999 but Kosovo’s struggle for independence continued till 2008, and unfortunately Kosovo’s war to clear the UED is far from finished. As Kosovo grows in every way one teething problem to this relatively new born country is the UED left by the war. The hopes of the KSF are to reform their forces when international restrictions are lifted and move forward with removing these devices.
Everything I witnessed in Kosovo showed that the mine clearing teams are an exemplary modern force comprised of all parts of Kosovar society, they work with pride and a clear aim- to make Kosovo a safer place for future generations. Kosovo is building itself continuously as an independent country and eventually will shake off the remaining scars of war left by the Serbian forces, their tourist industry will grow and with a possibility of joining the EU the hopes of the people are high. Kosovo in the future will cease to be a forgotten country and will be a role model for other Balkan countries, a role model for reconciliation, effective governance and future prosperity.