Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

GIs Side Step Bosnia's Land Mines While US Soldiers Supervise Mine Removal, They Get 'Ethnic War' Lesson

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

GIs Side Step Bosnia's Land Mines While US Soldiers Supervise Mine Removal, They Get 'Ethnic War' Lesson

Article excerpt

ONE of the most dangerous assignments for American soldiers in Bosnia is to supervise the removal of land mines from the front lines.

With an estimated 3 million to 6 million mines buried throughout Bosnia - along front lines that have been fluid during 3 1/2 years of ethnic war - few places are safe from the threat and there's plenty of work for American soldiers.

Just yesterday, a US combat vehicle ran over an antitank mine in central Bosnia. No one was hurt. But on Sunday, three British soldiers were killed when their vehicle ran over a mine in northwest Bosnia.

While performing the dangerous mission on the snow-encrusted ground, the soldiers' conversation often turns to how former neighbors became enemies - and how they might again be neighbors.

When the former combatants finish clearing a field, Americans test the area with mine-detection vehicles to confirm as near as possible that it is safe. "We proof them, because they miss as many as they pick up," says one first sergeant.

The tale of one US Army platoon is typical, and provided insight - and a small history lesson - for the Americans into the complex war in Bosnia.

Under gray, snow-filled skies south of Brcko, in northeast Bosnia, a handful of American soldiers gathered in the middle of no man's land, along with Serb and Croat officers who were demining their front line. Greetings and handshakes more befitting long-separated friends than enemies were exchanged and work began.

The senior Croat officer, a major, produced a hand-drawn map of the minefield: Eight antitank mines lay buried under the frozen crust of snow, and 80 antipersonnel mines were scattered about nearby.

An elderly Croat soldier wearing a shallow World War I-style helmet wandered through the minefield 15 feet away, spreading salt to make the snow melt. Then Croats and Serbs together began stabbing the earth with long metal and fiberglass prods.

"I wasn't worried until they started prodding at my feet," says an American lieutenant, as he gently eases members of his team back a few strides.

Used to more stringent risk management, the peacekeepers stood amazed as one antitank mine after another was found, unearthed roughly with a trowel, and extracted with the help of a shovel. The mines - their plastic triggers protruding and slick with mud - were set nonchalantly aside.

Warming with their success, the Bosnian rivals brought out a bottle of plum brandy, produced a heavy loaf of bread, then carved a smoked ham. A rowdy lunch party began, and the men began telling war stories.

The Americans politely declined to partake of the liquor, but helped themselves to the meat. Soon joking among Serbs and Croats began in earnest, since they had known each other for a decade before the war. The officers even attended school together. …

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