Sunday, December 10, 2006

Years After War in Kosovo, Land Mines Scar Albania


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.

Years After War in Kosovo, Land Mines Scar Albania -

technorati tags:, ,

Blogged with Flock

No comments: