When toys kill
Another challenge in Kosovo
by Ragnhild Imerslund
One year after the conflict ended, people are still dying as a
result of the war in Kosovo. For some, surviving peace has
become more difficult than surviving war.
It was early morning and a crowd of boys were crossing the field to get
to school in the village of Doganovic south of Pristina. Suddenly they came
across a strange object lying on the grass. A bright yellow container,
shaped like a soda can, was twinkling in the morning sunshine. Attached to
the can-like item was a toy-sized parachute. A nine-year-old boy picked up a
stick and started playing with the exotic object. Within a few minutes he
was dead. Several other children were injured. The yellow container was not
a soda can, nor a toy - it was a lethal cluster bomb.
High failure rate
Nobody knows exactly how many cluster bombs lie scattered around the fields
of Kosovo. NATO says it dropped around 1,600 cluster canisters
over the province during the 78-day air campaign last year.
In every canister there are from 147 to 202 cluster bomblets,
each outfitted with a small parachute to allow them to float
to the ground after they are released from the aircraft. The
soda-can-sized munitions are meant to float out over an area
of several football fields. As they hit the ground, the bomblets
explode. But not all of them.
According to official military statistics, on average 5 per
cent of the cluster bomblets fail to explode. In Kosovo the
failure rate is estimated to be much higher. A Swedish soldier
responsible for KFOR's mine awareness training says, that
"probably as many as 15 per cent of the cluster bomblets
did not explode." He calculates that "around 30,000
potentially lethal cluster bombs could be lying in the fields
Refugees teach refugees
Rexhep Bajraktari is back in Kosovo after eight years in exile. But he
won't stay long this time. In a week's time he will be back
in Britain teaching his refugee compatriots about the danger
of mines. The British Red Cross believes that nobody can do
that job better than somebody who is a refugee himself.
Rexhep is not alone. Together with eight other refugees who
have decided to live permanently in Western Europe, he is
attending an ICRC mine awareness instructors' training in
Pristina. After having spent one week in Kosovo, they will
all go back to their country of residence and meet other refugees
planning on returning to Kosovo this summer.
"We had to come here and see the minefields with our
own eyes. That is the only way of being able to pass on the
message of the danger of mines, convincingly," says Rexhep
Bajraktari. Rexhep and his eight colleagues hope they will
have enough time to warn people about the hidden killers before
they go back to their houses and fields. "We have to
make the returning refugees aware that the Kosovo they come
back to is not the same as the one they left. Houses, fields
and forests that were safe before are sometimes contaminated
with mines and UXO (unexploded ordnance)," says Johan
It is the first time the ICRC involves refugees in mine awareness
training for other refugees. "It is an excellent idea
to have refugees conducting mine awareness for other refugees.
They know the language, the country and the culture and can
surely communicate the message much more effectively,"
At the moment three European National Societies have trained
refugees as mine awareness officers - the British Red Cross,
the Swiss Red Cross and the Finnish Red Cross. Sohlberg hopes
that other National Societies will be inspired by this project.
"All National Societies should realize that refugees
represent a great resource and have certain skills that should
be appreciated and used to a much greater extent," he
Warned too late
While many Kosovars were aware of the danger of mines, few knew that their
neighbourhood and fields were also contaminated by cluster
bomblets when they returned home. Today shops, schools and
village cafés throughout Kosovo display posters, warning against
the several thousand hidden killers that still pose a threat
to daily life and reconstruction of the province.
For many, the warning has come too late. More than 400 people
have been killed or injured in accidents involving landmines
or unexploded ordnance (UXO) like cluster bomblets over the
past 12 months in Kosovo. According to ICRC mine awareness
officers probably almost half of the victims are victims of
cluster bomblets. "The problem of cluster bombs is without
doubt as big as the landmine problem in Kosovo," says
ICRC mine awareness programme coordinator, Johan Sohlberg.
Cluster bomblets are smaller than landmines, but much more powerful and
far more lethal. In contrast to a landmine, a cluster bomblet
does not have to be touched to explode. And that is one of
the main problems with this extremely unstable remnant of
war: nobody actually knows what triggers an explosion. Some
claim that weather change or bright sunshine is enough. Others
say that just casting a shadow over the bomblets may act as
a trigger. The only thing one can say for sure is that they
are completely unpredictable and extremely sensitive. However,
the saddest part of the story is that children find them simply
"Even though most of the cluster bomblets are visible,
and thus should be less dangerous than hidden landmines, they
are just too attractive and many children are tempted to touch
them," says Thomas Jarnehed who is leading the Norwegian
People Aid's mine clearance operation in Kosovo.
Several of the recorded incidents of cluster bomblet explosions
have been the direct result of children mistaking them for
a toy. But the slightest touch will make the bomblet do what
it is built to do - kill. In a fierce blast more than 2,000
fragments are dispersed. The bomblets are constructed to cut
through armoured tanks. The effects on flesh and bone have
proven to be devastating.
Nothing more dangerous
Cluster bombs are not banned by any international treaty
like anti-personnel mines because they are meant to explode
on impact rather than lie in silent wait for their victim.
However, many claim that even if cluster bombs technically
are not landmines "they do the same job when they're
sitting on the ground" as one Canadian military mine
clearer puts it. According to Human Rights Watch, "These
submunitions in effect become extremely powerful anti-personnel
mines, unable to distinguish between combatants and innocent
Mine clearance organizations in Kosovo report that cleaning
fields of cluster bombs is an extremely difficult and hazardous
task because of their unpredictability. According to a Halo
Trust mine clearer, "Nothing is more dangerous than a
Even though clearing Kosovo of mines and other UXO is a huge
task, it is not an impossible one. Due to an impressive presence
of international demining agencies, and effective coordination,
many hope that the operation will turn out to be successful.
"If we continue at the same speed, Kosovo will be cleared
of mines and cluster bombs within three to four years"
says Thomas Jarnehed. But for some children in Kosovo that
might be too late.
Raghnhild Imerslund is an advisor in the ICRC Mines and Arms Unit on loan
from the Norwegian Red Cross.
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