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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 of Kosovo."

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 Sohlberg.

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," says Sohlberg.

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 adds.

 

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.

Too attractive 

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 irresistible.

"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 civilians."

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 cluster bomb."

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.

Ragnhild Imerslund 
Raghnhild Imerslund is an advisor in the ICRC Mines and Arms Unit on loan from the Norwegian Red Cross.



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