Shifting Minefields: Bosnia’s Violent Legacy in the Wake of the Balkan Floods By: Chelsea Winn | Bosnia-Herzegovina | May 28, 2014

Bosnia-Herzegovina has suffered tremendously from the recent Balkan floods. Several months of rain have fallen in the period of a few days, prompting Bosnian authorities to declare a state of emergency in the wake of unexpected flash flooding, bursting rivers, and landslides. Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdijahas has even said that the physical destruction brought on by the floods is at least as bad, if not worse, than the destruction caused by the 1992-1995 civil war.

One million people – approximately a quarter of the population – have been affected by the floods, which cover 40 percent of the country’s territory. An estimated 100,000 houses were damaged, while tens of thousands of people have already been evacuated. Forty fatalities are presently confirmed, but this number is expected to rise once the water levels subside.

Particularly troubling are the 2,000 landslides which have occurred as a result of the floods. Landslides obviously pose a danger to people and infrastructure alike. But Bosnia is also one of the most landmine contaminated countries in the world, which makes these landslides especially dangerous.

During the 1992-95 Bosnian War, an estimated two million landmines were planted. Installed by various paramilitary groups, the locations of the landmines were not thoroughly mapped out and documented. This lack of documentation has complicated the demining process and posed persistent dangers to the population.

At the request of the Bosnian government, the UN Mine Action Center (UNMAC) was established in 1996. In 2002, a Demining Commission was formed to provide a national Bosnian structure to bolster local agency in the demining process. Under the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Demining Commission and its technical, state-level body, the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC), organizes and facilitates the country’s demining process.

The BHMAC has worked tirelessly to remove the remaining landmines and carefully map out the minefields. As of 2014, 120,000 unexploded landmines have been documented in over 9,400 marked minefields, designated by 25,000 signs. Other local and international organizations are also deeply involved in mine action. The UN Development Programme, for example, operates an Integrated Mine Action Programme that provides the Demining Commission and BHMAC with operational and strategic support.

Bosnia’s mountainous and densely forested territory pose a major impediment to the demining process, as the best mechanical methods for demining only work on flat land. Thus, the demining process has largely been done by hand, an assuredly slow and laborious undertaking.

As a result of the heavy rainfall, thousands of landslides have dislodged landmines from their carefully mapped locations, compounding the many dangers from the natural disaster. There have been numerous reports of people in flood affected areas finding landmines and unexploded ordnances left over from two decades ago. In a recent interview, the Mine Action Center’s deputy director Ahdin Orahovac was very frank: “We spent 10 years marking this area with warning signs. In these few days, everything is gone.”

The banks of rivers and streams were considered militarily strategic locations to plant landmines during the 1990s. As such, there are growing concerns that some landmines may have dislodged during the flooding and found their way into bodies of water. BHMAC has warned that mines may have been carried downstream from the Sava river, to the Danube, and possibly even as far as the Black Sea. The issue of landmine contamination has thus quickly become a regional problem. In the wake of this, Bosnia’s Mine Action Center is now trying to collaborate with neighbouring countries to deal with the regional implications of shifting minefields.

Under the provisions of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (Ottawa Treaty) of 1997, Bosnia had a deadline to be mine-free by March 2009. Unfortunately, this initial deadline proved unrealistic and was postponed to 2019. Had this mine-free status been achieved by the original deadline, the recent flooding would have had far less dangerous ramifications.

Some experts have expressed concerns that even the new 2019 deadline is too idealistic. The issue is not that Bosnia lacks the technical equipment or professional staff necessary to complete the work. Instead, the real problem is the fact that the process is expensive and Bosnia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Unable to finance the full extent of the demining program independently, the Mine Action Center estimated that Bosnia would need approximately 54 million USD per year until 2019 in order to meet the mine-free deadline. This estimate, of course, was based on the assumption that the mines had already been mapped. The costs of achieving mine-free status will have certainly increased significantly given the recent setbacks.

The question here lies in whether or not Bosnia-Herzegovina will receive enough funding from international donors not only to provide disaster relief, but also to continue the demining process. Early estimates already place the economic impact of the floods reaching into billions of dollars. Thus far, UN agencies have provided 1.5 million USD of assistance to flood affected areas, including food, medicine, tents, water pumps, and power generators. Additionally, the UN has pledged 400,000 USD in financial assistance, while European Union forces have assisted with evacuations and rescue work. Several international non-governmental organizations, civil society groups, and individual donors have also been providing donations and raising money for the disaster relief efforts, as well.

It remains to be seen whether international donors will pull through and provide Bosnia with the necessary assistance to fully recover from the three days of rainfall which were as destructive as three years of war. While acquiring sufficient donor assistance is certainly a challenge, a larger dilemma is whether the Bosnian government will be able to overcome the pervasive dysfunction that characterizes its bureaucracy in recent years.

The fragmented and delayed response of Bosnia’s institutions to these floods exemplifies this problem. Bosnia’s elaborate power-sharing arrangement, established by the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995, has come under harsh criticism over the past two decades. Based on accommodating the three constituent ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats), the postwar government is characterized by a bloated and expensive bureaucracy comprised of triplicate institutions. The system has encouraged the phenomenon of ethnic outbidding, in which politicians achieve success based on increasingly nationalistic and ethnically exclusive platforms.

One would hope that given the current crisis, politicians would be able to put aside contentious identity politics and work together to overcome the natural disaster. In reality, however, the flood has exacerbated ethnic divisions amongst politicians, and provided the opportunity to blame each other in attempts to bolster their political support for the upcoming October 2014 elections. Political accusations have taken precedence over delivering humanitarian aid and disaster relief.

While a seemingly bleak scenario of ethnic politics at the elite level, ordinary citizens of Bosnia have rejected ethnic divisions in their relief efforts and come together to help anyone in need. This reflects a greater trend in Bosnia, in which citizens have grown tired of their malfunctioning government and have begun advocating for change with acts of solidarity and protest that go beyond ethnic lines. Perhaps the recent devastation will bolster Bosnian citizens’ desire for institutional and social change, reflecting a glimmer of hope for Bosnia’s peacebuilding trajectory.

Chelsea Winn is a Research and Communications Intern at the Centre for Security Governance.

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