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Mine's-Eye View of a Croatian Mine Detector

Stalking Bosnia's Hidden Killers

Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief

SGT. MAJOR MAC WYGAERTS is a man who loves his work. He loves it so much in fact, that he pulled strings and called in favors to get his third and final tour with the UN Mine Action Center's mission to the Former Yugoslavia. You see, Wygaerts is Belgian, and UN missions of this kind are a first for his army. It is a coveted assignment and the Belgian Army only allows each applicant one or two tours at the most. Go figure, but to get assigned to a mine clearing unit you must not only want to go, but compete to do it.

Unlike many UN missions, he gets to see the results of his work right away. Every day that he works with his Croatian and Serb counterparts he sees a multitude of deadly devices rendered harmless and removed. For every mine he helps clear, for every piece of awareness material he distributes, a child or unsuspecting farmer will not fall victim to the death and maiming these devices deliver without warning or prejudice. A day without a report of a mine casualty is a day where he knows his efforts have paid off.

I met up with Wygaerts in Vinkovci, on the north side of town along the railroad tracks, a notorious front line for almost six years. The area was thick with mines and he and his teams were clearing the numerous lanes along the Vinkovci-Belgrade line as part of UN's East Slavonia Joint Implementation Committee for Railroads and Logistics. Their task was to re-open the lines of commerce and communication along the local railroad net, but before crews can repair damage and open the line, the mines have to go.

"In the Eastern Slavonia region, there are between 400,000 and 600,000 mines that are known to be out there." He told us as we walked down to the line to where the Croatian team was working. All along the way, in perpendicular lines out from the tracks stood ominous stakes with bright yellow ribbon. Each stake marked a mixed "lane" of mines containing anti-tank devices to disable or destroy armor and vehicles, and anti-personnel devices to disable or destroy people.

"This area has been fairly easy. The Croatian army recorded the locations of each lane, and it has been just a question of re-locating them and lifting them." he said, indicating to where a Cro team was making their way in, finished with the morning's work. "Even though we know where the mines are it's still time consuming. In this kind of work, a crew can only be used safely for a couple of hours and then you have to stop."

"You know," he continued, "you can buy these mines for $5.00 apiece, but do you know how much it costs the community to clear one mine? Between $700.00 and $1000.00 per mine." From what I could see, forget about schools, roads, or hospitals for the next decade.

"Our biggest problem though, isn't mine-fields like this though, it's the farmers who go buy them for $5.00 and put them around their farms. I guess they want to protect their orchards, but they just put them wherever and don't mark them. We had a Russian peacekeeper who was killed that way last year trying to pick fruit." Sad thing was, he went on to tell me, was that the soldier knew the area was mined, but took his chances anyway. Four UN soldiers have been killed in various incidents across Sector East since the deployment and no one knows for sure how many local casualties have been inflicted. Like mine problems everywhere, armies come and go, but the mines remain and continue to kill and maim long after the fighting stops.

Local attitudes are also a hindrance to mine clearing operations. "One way they try to deal with mines is to burn off the fields. That's O.K. in that it's easier to see the mines afterwards, but the problem with the plastic ones is that they melt and then you can't get the detonators out. The Croatians are pretty good about that. We tell them not to burn the fields and explain why, and they stop burning. But when you tell that to the Serbs, they start burning just to let you know they are the boss."

It also seems that mines can be a good way to get rid of political enemies. He went on to tell me about the mysterious death of a ranking Serb officer in Sector East who went hunting in an area that was not known to be mined and had no reason to be mined. They drove to a wooded area and — wham! — the car hit an anti-tank device and flipped over onto another, killing all inside. Again, the problem arises that if the attempt is unsuccessful, the mines will just be left there, unmarked, and it won't be the intended victim that hits them down the road, but more likely a group of picnickers.

All told though, the efforts at clearing have been going well. "We've had really good cooperation overall. Everyone knows it's in their best interests to clear the mines and it's been interesting working with the different armed forces here. It's been quite a learning experience to see the different techniques they employ in both laying them and clearing them. This job is also sort of famous back in Belgium." When asked if he would put in to get this kind of deployment in the future Sgt. Maj. Wygaerts smiled ruefully.

"Well, this is my third tour and I had to pull strings to get this assignment. A lot of people want this kind of job in our army and the competition to get the assignment is pretty rigorous. Our regular army only started these kinds of missions in 1992, before that, it was only the paratroops who went out. Maybe we'll be doing more in the future so I'll just wait and see." If I know Sgt. Marc Wygaerts, he'll find a few more strings he can pull somewhere, and I'd bet even money I'll see him again, somewhere out there in Berserkistan.

Additional resources
Landmine Hazards in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia
Landmine Awareness & Survival Techniques from Berserkistan
The Mine Awareness Training Course
The Landmine Control Programme: A Humanitarian Initiative
MineFacts MineFactsİ is an interactive database program developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. MineFactsİ contains information and graphics on over 675 landmines from around the world.
Global Landmine Crisis Global Ministries
Plastic Landmine Detection

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