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Yugoslavia: Education Programs Warn Kosovo's Children About Landmines

  • Ron Synovitz

The fighting may have ended in Kosovo, but the killing continues. NATO ended its air campaign against Yugoslavia last month, Serb troops withdrew from the province and the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) agreed to surrender its weapons. But thousands of landmines and unexploded bombs in Kosovo continue to pose a risk to both civilians and military personnel. Our correspondent in Pristina, reports on efforts to defuse the mines and bombs, as well as to educate the local population about the dangers ...


Pristina, 8 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Superman will soon be teaching ethnic Albanian children in Kosovo about the dangers of landmines and unexploded bombs.

Some 500,000 copies of a Superman comic book -- translated into the Albanian language -- will be given away across Kosovo starting next week. Publication of the comic book has been paid for by the U.S. State Department and the company that created the Superman character, D.C. Comics. UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) and the U.N.'s World Food Program are handling the distribution.

The story line of the Kosovo edition is similar to a Superman comic that already has been given to children in Bosnia-Herzegovina and countries in Central America. Detailed illustrations warn about landmines, NATO cluster bomblets and other weapons of war that Kosovo children are finding while playing in towns and villages.

The comic is just one of many projects aimed at protecting Kosovo residents from landmines and unexploded ordinance. The effort is drawing together divergent groups -- non-governmental organizations (NGOs), NATO military forces, the U.N. and even the Kosovo Liberation Army.

At the center of the efforts is the U.N.'s Mine Action Coordination Center in Pristina. The international peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) also is building up a database about suspected minefields and unexploded bombs across Kosovo, with the help of several NGOs. It is not yet possible to say how many mines, booby traps and unexploded bombs litter Kosovo, since proper surveys have not been conducted.

One of the key non-governmental organizations involved in the effort is called Halo Trust. Experts working for that group arrived in Kosovo shortly after the first KFOR peacekeepers. Their primary task is to map out -- in general terms -- all of the areas in the province that are thought to be danger zones. Other groups will conduct follow-up studies to provide more details about the risky areas.

Robert Beecroft is a U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State who specializes in political and military affairs. He says many of the mines planted in Kosovo by the Yugoslav army are thought to be in remote border regions. KFOR peacekeepers already have cleared mines and booby-traps off the roads leading from Macedonia and Albania. Beecroft says:

"It is absolutely true that the Serbs were very active in planting minefields along the borders with Albania, and secondarily, with Macedonia. Those minefields -- we know pretty well where they are. The Serbs did provide maps. Obviously, we're not going to take those maps as gospel (truth). But they are giving us a start in terms of the surveys. But it's also important to remember that this is very difficult terrain. You don't have a lot of people living up there. So while we're going to have to get at those eventually, I think our focus is going to be in more heavily populated and agricultural areas."

Beecroft says unexploded NATO cluster bomblets pose one of the biggest threats to farmers in Kosovo's interior regions -- particularly as villagers plant summer vegetables needed to help them survive through the coming winter. Before hitting the ground, cluster bombs open and release hundreds of smaller, so-called "bomblets" that explode across a wide area. The type of cluster bombs used in Kosovo were designed to disable Serb armored vehicles. Beecroft says many of the bomblets failed to explode:

"Yes, there is a problem with some NATO cluster bomblets that are out there. We are going to be working, especially in schools, to (teach) kids (about) what to stay away from. There are already major publicity efforts underway, including posters and brochures and leaflets, so that there will be a very clear idea on the part of people of this province as to what to avoid."

Already there have been reports of children being killed while collecting the bomblets, which are decorated with a yellow stripe. Two British explosive experts were killed last month while trying to defuse one of the bomblets. A Kosovo farmer was killed and a German KFOR soldier wounded when a bomblet exploded near Prizren last weekend.

The prevalence of the unexploded bomblets was underscored recently while RFE/RL's correspondent in Kosovo was interviewing British soldiers near Pristina airport. As the interview was being conducted, the group noticed a bomblet on the ground near them:

"No, I don't know ... It looks to me like a bomblet ... I'll jump on it and see if it blows up. That's a good idea. Hey, you want to do some EOD (explosive ordinance disposal)? It does look like a bomblet ... No no no ..."

Beecroft said six teams of demining experts have been contracted by the U.S. State Department for emergency demining operations that are due to start as soon as next week. The teams include bomb disposal experts, dogs trained to smell explosives, medics, guards and other support personnel -- altogether about 75 people.

Many of the experts are Bosnians and Croatians who have been trained by working in their own countries. Beecroft said the $1.6-million contract will cover the cost of demining operations until winter conditions freeze the ground and make it too dangerous to continue.

Murphey McCloy is a senior demining expert with the U.S. State Department. He said it would be foolish for crews to hack away at frozen ground to try to dig out mines. He said many of the mines in Kosovo were designed to explode when touched with the same amount of pressure a person would use to pinch a baby's cheek.

McCloy told RFE/RL that the best plan of action for the winter is to focus on education programs until the ground thaws enough for demining operations to begin again next spring.

Even before NATO forces entered Kosovo last month, the U.S. State Department, UNICEF and several NGOs were working to educate refugees at camps in Macedonia and Albania about the dangers of the explosives they are now encountering.

Despite the problems faced by Kosovo residents, Beecroft defended the U.S. government's refusal to sign an international treaty outlawing the use of landmines. He said landmines continue to play an important role in America's defensive military operations. For example, he said landmines play a critical role in the ability of U.S. forces to successfully defend the border between North and South Korea.