As if Catastrophic Flooding Wasn’t Bad Enough…

The waters drowning Bosnia have unearthed thousands of land mines.

Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images

POBUDJE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Mihret Omerovic knows what it is to rebuild. His village, Pobudje, was burned down 22 years ago when it was taken by Serb forces. He fled with thousands of other Bosnian Muslims to nearby Srebrenica, but then had to flee the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Omerovic, 35, returned to rebuild his home in 2002. He started a family and began to till the land.

But now, following the worst Balkan flood in at least a century, Omerovic’s water-logged farm, like those of the mostly agrarian villagers around him, will bear no fruit. And he will have to restore his home. "Once again," he said, "it feels like we have to start from the beginning."

The flooding, wrought by three months’ worth of rain falling in only three days, covers a territory larger than the U.S. state of Massachusetts in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. Almost 1 million Bosnians have either been evacuated or have left their homes because of flooding or landslides, according to Fahrudin Solak, acting head of the civil defense service in Bosnia’s Federation (one of the country’s two major regions). People have crammed into emergency accommodations. Many are still waiting for electricity. Across the region, close to 50 people have died due to the natural disaster.

"The physical destruction is not less than the destruction caused by the war," Bosnian Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija said Monday, May 19, in a news conference. "During the war, many people lost everything. Today, again they have nothing."

But in addition to the loss of homes and land, other dangers lurk. Much of Bosnia was mined during the war, including the hills above Srebrenica, where Omerovic once sought refuge. The rains have unearthed and moved many of these relics of past conflict, threatening to raise the death toll of the floods even after the waters have receded. (Since the war ended in 1995, more than 600 people have been killed and more than 1,700 more wounded by land mines, according to Bosnia’s Mine Action Center. Four people have been killed and 12 wounded this year alone.)

The Mine Action Center, a government-run body that coordinates demining, has warned people that the more than 2,100 landslides and mudslides caused by the flooding have altered fields of land mines. The 120,000 mines still left in the country used to be contained in 13,000 square feet of well-marked fields. Now they have spread away from the warning signs once indicating their locations. As much as 70 percent of the flooded territory could now be at risk of having land mines on it, according to the Mine Action Center.

"All flooded areas have become mine and unexploded ordnance suspected area," says Jasmin Porobic, the United Nations’ point person in Bosnia for explosive ordnance destruction. Porobic is worried that people will inadvertently encounter minefields as they move around the rain-soaked country. "Roads are blocked by landslides. People are looking for alternative roads. They may end up in the minefields," he said.

The Mine Action Center has warned displaced people not to return home until the area is cleared by a demining officer — no easy task. A mine has already exploded in the northern city of Brcko, near Bosnia’s borders with Serbia and Croatia. And a minefield in the northwestern Bosnian town of Bosanska Krupa, near Croatia, has been uncovered — evidence of how drastically the earth has shifted.

Some of the mines planted in Bosnia are plastic, meaning they can float. As a result, they could be carried by floodwaters, possibly as far as the Danube River. (On May 16, representatives from mine action centers in Croatia and Serbia will come to Bosnia to assess what mines might have crossed borders by now and how to find and secure them.) Porobic also warns that "a massive threat is unexploded ordnance and armaments that people disposed of in rivers, in fear of sanctions for illegal possession"; those too may have been moved in the flooding.

The biggest danger, however, are anti-personnel jumping mines, like the one that exploded late May 20 in Brcko. Designed to wound as many people as possible, these mines pop about 3 feet into the air when triggered, spraying shrapnel over 100 feet in all directions when they explode. "No amount of time, no amount of weather can destroy them," says Ahdin Orahovac, deputy director of the Mine Action Center. "These are our No. 1 killer mines."

Before the floods, Bosnia was on track to be free of land mines by 2019. Now it’s unclear whether that’s still possible. The Mine Action Center estimates that it will cost $412 million to clear the territory. "This is a real disaster from all aspects," Orahovac says.

Land mines aren’t the only legacy of the war being complicated by the floods. Ten thousand people are still missing from the conflict, and the floods have made the difficult work of exhuming and identifying those who died more dangerous.

Witnesses are still coming forward to identify the sites of unmarked mass graves, but movements in the land mean that witness testimony about these sites may no longer be valid. "Dramatic landscape change can make it difficult for witnesses to pinpoint potential locations of graves," says Ian Hanson, deputy director of forensic science for archaeology and anthropology at the International Commission on Missing Persons, an intergovernmental organization based in Bosnia and charged with locating and identifying people who disappear during armed conflicts. Landslides could also affect access to search locations or complicate future excavations.

What’s more, grave sites could be commingled with mines. "Surface remains and grave sites near mined locations may be affected by shifting minefields, hampering or preventing search and excavation," Hanson says. Potential grave sites will have to be cleared of mines before being excavated.

To be sure, these issues only account for some of the problems facing the flooded territory. Bosnians are now at risk of catching water-borne diseases — like hepatitis and typhoid — and food, medicine, and clean water are scarce in some areas. Although medicines and assistance are slowly arriving from all over the world, the floods will leave a mark long after the water has receded.

Bosnia’s recovery is complicated because it is one of the most overgoverned countries in the world. The 1995 Dayton Accords put in place a bulky, fragmented ethnic power-sharing system among Bosniak Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. This structure is unprepared to respond to disasters like the current flooding; this is largely why it took six days for state-level authorities to meet about the floods. Currently, too, the Ministry of Security is leaderless — the former minister was forced to step down after 17 government buildings were destroyed in mass anti-government protests in February — and there is no national ministry of health to coordinate relief efforts, because it was not provided for in Dayton.

"The disaster coordination body over successive years has failed to meet, to take part in any training, nor [has it] shown any interest," says a former advisor for disaster management and strategic operations in Bosnia.

Bosnian citizens provided much of the assistance to one another in the first few days a
fter the water rose up. "Citizens have mobilized not just because they are good people, but because they know that they don’t have a state that can help them," says a senior Western diplomat with several years of experience in Bosnia. Other states have also stepped in with aid, including Slovenia, Montenegro, and Macedonia.

Yet in a sign of lingering ethnic tensions, some communities have complained that they have been overlooked in aid disbursement. In northwestern Bosnia, for instance, Mirsad Duratovic says his Bosniak Muslim returnee community in a majority Serb area was passed over for aid. Omerovic, too, says the people responsible for distributing humanitarian assistance in his region skipped his community, and he is worried that it will continue to be ignored.

Perhaps nothing could have prevented the catastrophic flooding from uprooting Bosnians who have long struggled to find postwar normalcy. But the country’s unwieldy government, along with the literal resurfacing of the war’s legacy, will almost certainly prolong that painful search.

Nedim Jahic contributed additional reporting from Pobudje, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Valerie Hopkins is a journalist based in the Western Balkans. Follow her on Twitter @Valeriein140.