A minefield waiting for clearance in Orasje, Bosnia. All photos by Wyatt Gallery and Kareem Black
Most Bosnians understand that the world can’t be bothered to keep track of all their problems. They live in a small Southern European country with a beautiful yet dark and complicated history. Even I admit that my concern for Bosnia is largely selfish and sentimental: I was born there, raised there, and lived through a war there. When the traces of that past come up, I take notice.
Earlier this year, there was massive flooding in Bosnia. Twice. More than 25 percent of the nation’s population was affected. The floods extended across 40 percent of the land, and once the water receded, it had created a new, menacing reality. Land mines that had been dormant for almost two decades slid into towns, disguised under a layer of wet, dark earth. In a single month, 54 mines, 840 explosive devices, and 37,366 pieces of smaller explosives and ammunition all found their way into residential areas. In the community of Doboj, a refrigerator packed with seven bombs washed up into someone’s front yard.
The Norwegian’s People Aid in Bosnia—the NGO that allowed me to visit a land-mine-removal site—has a rule that whenever there are more than four non-working individuals on the field, all de-mining engineers must stop working. The men, dressed in full protective gear that includes a blue helmet and padding across their shoulders, chests, stomach, genitals, and thighs, stand like cops waiting for a riot, their hands clasped in front of their stomachs, their gazes fixed straight ahead. Each man stands alone in a safe pocket of yellow tape. Around him is a football field’s worth of empty land. The only thing you hear in a minefield is the sound of breathing.
When you live surrounded by hidden explosives, outbursts of brutality can come when you least expect them, without regard for your plans, possessions, or livelihood. In the village of Mladici, the locals once used the neighboring land for agriculture. Now, what was formerly their only source of income is now their biggest threat. “It's one thing for me to not go in the fields and try to sustain my family. But it's hard to tell my grandchildren to not go in the fields to play,” said Misic Jelisije, a father and grandfather who watched the floods bring mines into his backyard. “You know how kids are. You tell them not to do something, and that is all they want to do. But doing so here, they will die.”
More than 220,000 land mines remain since the war in Bosnia; that’s more mines than there are in Afghanistan. "Our goal was to be land-mine-free by 2019," said Dragan Kos, head of a demining unit, "but with the floods, and given our resources, it’s more likely to be 2050." Chris Natale, a Norwegian’s People Aid adviser, had a simple answer as to why land-mine removal was not a priority: "People have just forgotten."
Photographers Kareem Black and Wyatt Gallery came with me on a recent trip to the minefields. Scroll down to see a selection of their photos.
This Thursday, October 9, a charity event benefiting the Norwegian’s People Aid will be held at Kinfolk 94 in Brooklyn. More details and a list of participating artists and musicians can be found at MoreThanNothing.org.
NPA Bosnia engineer with mine-clearing dog
Warning tape in Orasje, Bosnia
A Prom-1 antipersonnel land mine
Portrait on the wall of a flooded house
The study of a flooded house
A bridge in Doboj that's believed to be above washed-up land mines
An NPA Bosnia engineer
An explosives box
Nikola Tesla High School
A flooded study in the village of Mladici
A pool filled with flood water
More flood water in the pool
Spice bottles in a kitchen after a flood
A waterlogged family photo album
NPA Bosnia engineer with mine-sniffing dog
An NPA Bosnia worker
A television in a flooded school
The Bosnian landscape through a window
An NPA Bosnia worker in a minefield
A flooded home in Orasje