Macedonia: Mine Menace

Unexploded ordnance left in the wake of the Macedonian conflict continues to pose a serious threat to rural people.

Macedonia: Mine Menace

Unexploded ordnance left in the wake of the Macedonian conflict continues to pose a serious threat to rural people.

Friday, 22 February, 2002

Qemal Shabani, a farmer from the village of Opaje in Lipkovo, motions towards an unexploded grenade in his field. " I dread to think what's underneath it," he said.

Lethal reminders of last year's conflict litter the Lipkovo region, in northern Macedonia, preventing farmers from tilling their fields and holding up rebuilding work in local villages.

According to the International Committee for the Red Cross, ICRC, combatants' use of old and low quality ammunition means that there's more of a problem with unexploded ordnance in Macedonia than other conflict areas.

The organisation says in other parts of the Balkans antipersonnel mines, landmines and cluster bombs constitute more of a danger.

Saso Jovanovic, from Matejce, another Lipkovo village, has so far been unable to return home, which was destroyed in the fighting. "I hope to go there in the spring to rebuild my house, but I fear there may be a mine among the ruins," he said.

Local transport has also been affected by people's fear of detonating shell and mines. "NATO troops have cleared the major roads, but we need a team to inspect the secondary roads - people won't use them otherwise," said Sali Jonuzi, chief of Tearce Council in the Tetovo region.

The ICRC says that while there is no documented evidence yet of the widespread laying antipersonnel mines in Macedonia, this cannot be entirely excluded - with the threat, if it does exist, confined to areas around Tetovo, Kumanovo and Skopje which saw the heaviest fighting.

The munitions menace has already claimed a number of lives. A youth was recently killed and four others seriously injured in an explosion in the Bervenica commune in Tetovo. Last November, high school students on a UNHCR bus narrowly escaped injury when the vehicle detonated mines planted along the Skopje-Radushe road.

Since last August, the ICRC has been running a programme to raise awareness of the threat from unexploded ordnance and mines. Nearly 50,000 brochures have been produced and distributed and 355 members of the Macedonian Red Cross have been trained to run safety workshops for residents of mined areas.

Also active in clearing of unexploded ordnance and mines is the International Trust Fund, founded in Slovenia in 1998. The fund has been working in Macedonia since October, when de-mining teams from Bosnia-Hercegovina arrived to clear areas around Kumanovo, Tetovo and Skopje. The teams made safe nearly two million square metres. Their work stopped temporarily at the beginning of the year, but they plan to resume in the spring.

The fund is prioritising villages in areas which are less visited by other international organisations, such as the Lipkovo-Kumanovo area. Zoran Taneski, a spokesman for the fund, says that when work resumes, Macedonian teams will have been trained to carry out the work. "These should be ready to assist in the de-mining of villages in conflict-torn parts of the country," he said.

However, mine and ordnance clearing could become irrelevant if fighting resumes in the spring. Last month, former National Liberation Army fighters and Macedonia nationalists were making war-like noises.

Fortunately, the tensions appear to have been defused in recent weeks, but people in Lipkovo are understandably worried. They fear the smallest provocation could ignite another round of conflict and destroy all the de-mining work that's been done so far. "We're nervous that trouble will flare up - and prevent us from tilling our fields for yet another year, " said Shabani.

Irfan Agushi is a journalist with the Albanian-language daily Fakti.

Support our journalists