Years After War in Kosovo, Land Mines Scar Albania
Seven years after the Kosovo conflict ended, NATO bombs continued to explode this fall in the mountains of northern Albania.
This time, however, it was a reassuring sound. Up in the hills, men in protective gear were setting off bomblets that alliance warplanes scattered along the Kosovo border during the 78 days of hostilities.
Within earshot but miles away, men and women combed other hillsides, inch by inch, on hands and knees, searching for land mines planted by combatants in the ground war between Serb forces and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian separatists.
For isolated villages such as Dobruna, it's been seven years of death, amputations, shrapnel wounds and blown-up farm animals, seven years of blocked-off grazing lands, forests and water supplies. The explosives have choked off any hope of development here, denying more than 25,000 people access to parts of their land, according to government estimates.
"Before the war, we used to depend on growing crops and raising animals, but without being afraid of losing our lives," said Dan Mynxyra, the 54-year-old village leader, elected by Dobruna's 36 households. He was sitting on a grassy plot while several other residents looked on. Above, the ash- and oak-covered hillsides had turned a brilliant mix of pumpkin, canary and pale green.
According to Mynxyra, most residents fled the day that NATO began bombing Kosovo, March 24, 1999, in a campaign to halt attacks by Serb forces on ethnic Albanians in the breakaway province. They returned to a familiar landscape made lethal by land mines and booby traps. Dobruna had become one of the border's most explosives-contaminated villages.
The terrain here is more vertical than horizontal, and planting and grazing land is so precious that before organized de-mining began, some residents tried to clear fields and paths on their own, often with tragic results. Thirteen of the village's 290 residents have been injured by land mines, some planted within yards of their houses.
In addition, between 200 and 300 of Dobruna's cows have fallen prey to mines in the past five years, according to Jonuz Kola, who runs a private group that assists mine victims. Kola has tried to dissuade villagers from following stray animals into suspected minefields, with limited success -- loss of a cow is a catastrophe for a poor family.
Sitting on the ground next to Mynxyra, Kola laid out his warning once again. An onlooker yelled out: "If your cow goes into the minefield, you have to go and take it out." Kola smiled and sighed.
A few steps away, the women of the Mula family stood in their yard amid beehives and dried husks, preparing corn to be ground for the winter. Neighbors' chickens wandered in, bees buzzed around and a young cow relaxed on the floor of a small barn.
Jashar Mula emerged from the house with a photo of his 24-year-old son, Korob, sitting on what appeared to be a hospital bed, one leg and both arms reduced to bandaged stumps. His parents said he stepped on a mine and then fell on another while shepherding a flock six years ago.
While his wife, Jose, looked on in distress, Jashar Mula called the day of Korob's accident the worst of his life. "If someone can help me in America, if possible," he said, "send me and my son to the U.S. I will give my hand to Korob, keeping one only to eat."
Korob is one of 272 people wounded or killed by mines and bombs littering a 75-mile stretch of border between Kosovo and Albania. Since 2000, workers have cleared about four-fifths of the area, recovering almost 16,000 explosives.
The work has focused on ground that villagers deem to be high and medium priority: grazing and crop land, roads, areas near water sources. This fall, those and other useful areas along the length of the border were finally declared free of explosives, but it will probably be 2010 before nearly all the explosives along the border are gone.
NATO has acknowledged that some of its warplanes' bombs intended for Serb targets in Kosovo landed on Albanian soil. "NATO never intended to drop any bombs in Albania," said acting NATO spokesman Robert Pszczel. Those that did fall there tend to be within a few yards of the border.
As for mines, at least one account has them being laid by Kosovo Liberation Army rebels to prevent Serb soldiers from following them across the border into Albania, where, as ethnic Albanians, the guerrillas enjoyed widespread support from the population.
But some villagers photographed Serb soldiers laying them, according to Shefqet Bruka, a community liaison for the Albanian Mine Action Executive, a government agency.
A 2004 NATO report states: "In an attempt to deter NATO, Albanian and Kosovo Liberation Army forces from entering Kosovo, Serb forces had planted an extensive network of anti-personnel mines along the northern border of Albania. A significant number of mines have also been found well into Albanian territory."
"They can't admit that they laid mines on the Albanian side" because of the possible legal and financial consequences, said Veri Dogjani, mine awareness and victim assistance officer at the mine action executive. Albanians have been asking for maps of the minefields, "but they say, 'No, we are not aware of what you're talking about.' "
The Serbian Defense Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Col. Dusan Stanizan of the Yugoslav army's general staff wrote in a Serbian military magazine in January 2000 that "the Yugoslav Army's mining of some routes from Albania into Kosovo had prevented KLA soldiers from breaking through."
Unlike Kosovo, which has been under administration by the United Nations since the war ended in June 1999, northern Albania has received little international aid to repair damage it suffered in the conflict. The region remains desperately poor -- average per capita gross domestic product is $1,564. Many houses along the border lack indoor plumbing and electricity, unemployment hovers around 30 percent, and some villages have lost almost 40 percent of their population since Albanians got the right a decade and a half ago to move freely around the country.
The few roads here tend to be harsh, car-eating gullies, where even walking is difficult. Under communism, cars were banned in Albania, and many villagers still get by with horses and donkeys.
A January 2005 survey by aid organizations determined that road construction was a crying need, as were new irrigation systems, schools, health centers and better access to drinking water. Most projects, however, still await funding.
Jonuz Kola's group, the Victims of Mines and Weapons Association, has helped train local medical professionals and assisted the injured in getting care in the Albanian capital, Tirana, and abroad. It provides interest-free loans of roughly $1,550 to mine victims and their families. So far the program has helped 63 people buy 104 cows.
"They have more milk and they have something like $800 to $1,000 more per year just because of the cows," Kola says.
Kola estimates that it will take at least 10 years for northern Albania to develop what would appear to be a boundless potential for tourism -- its mix of rocky peaks and blue-green rivers make for a walker's paradise.
Before that happens, of course, the mines must go, but even their final removal will be a mixed blessing.
DanChurchAid, the last organization de-mining along the border, provides some of the few jobs to be had here, paying people about $520 a month to find and clear the explosives.
When asked what they would do when de-mining work ended with the arrival of cold weather, people replied with a vague smile or a shrug. "We don't have any jobs in Kosovo. It's impossible to find a job," said Fishik Mamusha, an economics student from Kosovo who was working as a de-miner.
Without the roads, clinics, schools and bridges that the villages seek -- and, in truth, without the mines -- this region could go back to being a forgotten island of poverty on a wealthy continent.