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One Tough Customer
This Serb Clears Mines Old Fashioned Way

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

Berserkistan Navigator Hereabouts in Bosnia you meet all sorts. Big, small, short and tall. After awhile, the whole place can kind of blend together because the experiences of many people are so much alike if you've seen one, chances are you've seen ten. Even so, you do meet people who break the mold and stand out from all the others.

One such person was a Bosnian Serb Army Engineer named Lieutenant Alexander from Zvornik. We met up on a hill overlooking the now Muslim village of Memici, where he was engaged in clearing his army's old minefields. Under the Dayton plan, each side is required to lift their own minefields and this day, under IFOR escort from the 1/4 Cavalry he was doing that, but with a twist.

"He's one tough customer." Said Lieutenant Craig Hamilton, of Hannibal, Missouri. "I've seen some things in my day, but this kind of takes the cake." He went on to describe Lt. Alexander. "He likes working alone, just him and his partner. Speaks perfect English too. I've seen all the forces around here and can't say that I think much of 'em, but this guy's a strait shooter."

The day we accompanied Lt. Hamilton and his crew from A Company, 40th Engineers attached to the 1/4 Cav, Lt. Alexander was finishing up a particularly tricky piece of work up on the hill. At this place the Muslim and Serb lines were a mere forty meters apart and separated by a small stand of trees and underbrush. The line took a hard left turn strait down the hill and was the most vulnerable spot on the front. This fact necessitated the mining of the area to their front, with a hitch — because the two sides were so close to each other, crawling out to lay a by the book minefield was out of the question.

"We were so close here that you couldn't go out of the trench." Lt. Alexander briefed us when we went back up the hill with him at lunch time. "In order to get the mines out there, the commander here went down the line and gave every man here a mine. After they armed them he just said, "Throw them out there somewhere!" So they did, and now they're all scattered around in the bushes." He sort of gazed wistfully into the trees with a little sigh, munching on his bread and potted meat.

"I've been working two days up here with Pajor to clear this area. I've had better jobs." He said with a chuckle. His partner, Pajor, grunted.

Lt. Alexander is only 22 years old, but is indeed a cool customer. We chatted over lunch and talked about mines, the war, and life in general. He is one of the most likable Serbs I have ever met. He doesn't swallow propaganda hook, line and sinker and isn't afraid to speak his mind. "We had a good country here, it really was. I think these politicians, ours, theirs, yours, all of them, have made for very bad things here. I'm 22. All my old friends are either dead, scattered or my enemies. Except for Pajor, of course." Pajor grunted again and smiled.

"I learned my English in school." He said when we asked him about it. "I was going to be a business translator or a tour guide on the coast before all this. Now I don't think it will happen."

We asked if people could ever live together again and after some reflection he replied, "Not right now. Maybe in the future, but there's been too much blood. Too many people have lost family and they're not going to forget that soon. I got lucky. My older brother was working in Germany and I made it through all right, so my family doesn't have these problems. We are very lucky. I know many people who were not so lucky and they still have deep hate. All for politics..." he said, rising to get back to work. "But now we work."

I have seen some unorthodox mine clearing techniques in my day, but this was certainly one to remember. Because of the scattered nature of the field in front of us, it was wisest to blast away the top cover first. Being as cluttered as it was made it impossible to go out and lay proper charges, so we did the next best thing. We took 200gram blocks of TNT and threw them at the minefield.

Yes, that's right, lit them and threw them at a real live minefield not 20 meters away like apples or snowballs only a lot more dramatic, especially when the odd charge set of a mine and pieces of the casing came flying past.

But that was the easy part. After about fifty charges, Lt. Alexander would hitch up his trousers in what I took to be a Bosnian Serb gesture of determination, take up his metal poker, and set off into the brush to look for any that hadn't blown. Just as cool as a cucumber he strolled around, poking at this and that, recovering the odd piece of unexploded demo, and then coming back to hit another section. That was one part of the exercise I left him to do.

After a total of 135 charges were thrown and three trips into the minefield, he declared it clear and we packed the gear off the hill. "This is only the half of it," he commented when we got down and briefed Lt. Hamilton. "Over on the right side is at least 500 more that I know of, but I need to get a mine-rolling vehicle in there for that. It would take me a year to clear it by hand."

We then marked some more ordinance that had been discovered on the roadside and left it for the BiH Engineers, as it was on their side of the line, and showed Lt. Hamilton the next area that needed to be cleared. "He was up there all day yesterday." Hamilton remarked. "We counted 200 detonations and he actually disarmed 35 grenades."

After we left, Lt. Hamilton's men loaded up a dozen spools of barbed wire and pickets to be used to mark off the other minefields in the area, and I had a chance to bid farewell. After shaking hands, I told Lieutenant Alexander from Zvornik that if this nonsense started up again not to get himself killed for some politician's selfish agenda. With a quick grin and a firm handshake he replied, "Oh, don't worry about me. God gave me a good brain."

To learn more...
Stalking Bosnia's Hidden Killers On A Landmine Mission with Belgian Troops
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
Global Landmine Crisis Global Ministries
Plastic Landmine Detection
MineFacts MineFacts© is an interactive database program developed by the U.S. Department of Defense containing information and graphics on over 675 landmines from around the world.

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