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At 2.41pm, Vrana messages again: “Okay… I have just entered my office and am waiting for you.”
A deminer’s everyday working life can be unpredictable, he explains as he hands me a Turkish coffee in a tiny copper mug.
“Today I thought I might come to the office and finish the annual report… maybe check some emails, write some letters… and then we had the situation in the field… and it was not an average day.”
Vrana’s office at the Federal Administration of Civil Protection in Sarajevo, littered with knickknacks and keepsakes dear to his heart, feels almost like that of any other employee in a government job.
Documents are haphazardly pinned to the noticeboard, a plastic smiling Snoopy doll and a framed picture of his wife share a corner of his desk, and a few photos of Vrana and his workmates are stuck fondly to the wall. It’s the mid-20th Century 90mm artillery shell casually jutting out in front of his desk that begins to hint that his job may not be typical.
“I don’t like sterile spaces,” he explains as he notices me eyeing an ornamental array of 20 and 40mm anti-aircraft bullets, neatly positioned in ascending order of size on the coffee table opposite his desk.
The top of the filing cabinet is festooned with trinkets of death: four anti-personnel landmines, two mortar shells, a hand grenade and few shaped charges, all of which Vrana deactivated himself.
And yet despite the myriad of killing devices adorning the room, Vrana’s presence is both disarming and peaceful, and his every word is executed with an elegant exactness that has echoes of the meticulousness that is needed in his work.
The work is still very much necessary because, 25 years on from the 1992-95 conflict, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world.
Mine-clearing efforts began after the war, but there remain an estimated 79,000 mines and pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXOs), spread across more than 1,000 square kilometres of the country’s terrain.
Over half a million Bosnian residents are directly threatened by mine-contaminated micro-locations, and innocent people continue to be maimed and killed each year by these harrowing remnants of war.
‘I know I did something that counts’
Sead Vrana is a South Slavic literature graduate of the Philosophy Faculty at Sarajevo University, a published poet, and an aspiring PhD candidate. He’s also the most experienced unexploded ordnance disposal technician in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and chief of explosives at the Federal Administration of Civil Protection.
Back in 1993 during the war, just a month before his 18th birthday, Vrana volunteered to disarm his first ever landmine. A mine had been discovered five or six metres away from the enemy’s front line, and so Vrana, who didn’t like receiving special treatment for being the youngest soldier in his team, seized the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Soon after successfully deactivating the landmine, Vrana’s body began to shake: “I started to rewind all the things I did that could have cost me my life,” he recalled. “And I said to myself: ‘I won’t do that anytime again,’” But evidently he did.
After the war’s end, an unemployed and uneducated Vrana, who just happened to be proficient in the art of explosive ordnance disarmament, started working as a deminer for the government. In this time for new beginnings, he also commenced his studies of South Slavic literature, an interest he had possessed well before the war had begun.
Vrana, who is affectionately nicknamed ‘Bomb Killer’ by his ten year-old daughter and ‘Bomb Doctor’ by his colleagues, derives a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment from making his country safer.
“This job satisfies my need to be useful because I know I am useful in a very concrete way,” he said. “When I do something like disposing of a 500kg bomb from downtown or… clearing out the forgotten ordnance from somewhere in the forest on the former front line, I know I did something that counts.”
Last year alone, Vrana and the deminers from the Federal Administration of Civil Protection successfully disposed of 2,645 UXOs and 1,310 landmines. And considering that a single anti-personnel mine can kill within a 50 metre radius of its location, and inflict severe injury on people up to 100 metres from the explosive, Vrana and his team’s work is as noble as it is necessary.
‘Kids need a safe environment’
Documentary photographer Rocco Rorandelli, who spent time with landmine victims for his project ‘Landmines: The Endless War’, said that one of the saddest aspects of the situation was that “whenever they stepped on mines, it was mostly in places where they were used to walking, so it was a totally unexpected turn of events”.
In the capital, the presence of mines and UXOs still threatens Sarajevo and the surrounding municipalities, which has prompted Nermin Hadzimujagic, director of the Mine Detection Dog Centre, to create a project called Mine Free Sarajevo 2020, an initiative to clear Sarajevo of unexploded ordnance by the end of September this year.
“Security is very important for our people,” Hadzimujagic explained. “We have kids, they’re walking around, and they need to have a safe environment.”
International trauma expert Professor Alexander McFarlane said that deminers are at “significant risk” of psychological injury due to “the constant apprehension that when you are deactivating a mine, you’re going to be a victim yourself”.
Yet despite repeated exposure to life-threatening situations spanning nearly three decades, Vrana’s temperament remains abundant in lightheartedness and cheek. Eyes twinkling, he fondly recounts a conversation he once had with his wife when she expressed dissatisfaction that he couldn’t fix things around the house.
“Every other man knows how to repair things in the household and you do not,” his wife complained to him one day. “OK, yes, but we are not using any explosives in the house,” he reasoned back.
When asked how he makes peace with the dangers of the job while having a family, Vrana exhaled heavily and his joviality disappeared.
“If there wasn’t life insurance, I wouldn’t be doing this job, even if I love it very much,” he began. “Just because of my daughter. This way, I know that if something happens to me, they will not have to struggle in their life without me.
“In this line of work,” he declared, “there is no trial and error – it’s only trial.”
‘This is a humanitarian job’
Inside the boardroom of the Federal Administration of Civil Protection, with arms folded purposefully across his expansive chest, Ferhat Ljuca sits in his navy-hued uniform with an unmistakable regality, nodding slowly and attentively as questions are posed to him.
Ljuca is a father of three who loves barbecues and hates heights. He is also a demining quality controller for the Federal Administration for Civil Protection, and has been working in landmine clearance since he was a teenager.
Growing up without a mother or father, Ljuca’s childhood never afforded him the luxury of daydreaming about what he might be when he got older.
“I had a very hard life,” he recalled. “I watch my children say, ‘I want to be a fireman, I want to be a doctor.’” Ljuca didn’t have such options: “I always thought, I will be a good human.”
When the war came, Ljuca’s vocation began to form of its own accord: “The war found me at 15, 16… I became of age to be a soldier… but that was all forced, and that’s how I became what I am… that’s where I first met with mines.”
He said that deminers are “kind people, always in a good mood – you can’t be short-tempered or angry in this job”.
“We encounter various things… a man without a head, torn up… falling apart… intestines… dismembered bodies,” he explained. “But we have to take it all standing up.” He shrugged resignedly, almost in slow motion: “What can you do?”
“If somebody gave me a computer to work at everyday between 8am and 4pm, I couldn’t do it,” he declared. “This is a humanitarian job, you remove danger so a child, a man, livestock won’t have an accident… You simply fall in love with this job and I wouldn’t know what else to do.”
Despite his evident passion for his work and seemingly high level of tolerance for emotional distress, Ljuca admitted that he is not psychologically immune to what he witnesses on the job.
“I can’t say that it isn’t scary. You do some jobs… and it can happen to me that for several hours I can’t eat… I can’t wash my hands of a bad feeling,” he said.
He recounted an incident near the town of Olovo that he was called out to several years ago, which remains embedded in his psyche today. A man had taken his 12-year-old son into a mine-contaminated forest to gather firewood.
“While he was cutting the wood in the minefield, the little one was playing,” Ljuca began. “There was an explosion… and the little one died.”
When Ljuca and his team arrived at the scene, they noticed the father and son’s small cart that was supposed to carry their wood back home with them.
“The man didn’t have the money to pay for firewood, so he took his child with him into the woods… and now what meaning does his life have to him?”
Ljuca explained that mine awareness plays an integral role in Bosnia’s mission to protect its people from mines.
He recounted a call-out out to Hadzici a year or so ago, where three boys aged between 12 and 13 had accidentally stumbled into a minefield after running away from an angry dog.
“They had been through mine risk education, and so when they saw the mine signs, one of them used their phone to call his dad… Dad said: ‘Stay there, don’t move’, and called us,” he said.
When he and his colleagues discovered the boys, they had been standing in the same spot for three whole hours, exactly what the Mine Detection Dog Centre’s education had taught them to do.
Those boys are now mine awareness activists, said Marija Trlin, one of the Mine Detection Dog Centre’s mine risk educators: “We actually got feedback from them because they remembered what we were telling them and they saved their lives.”
‘Let’s make tomorrow more beautiful’
As fulfilling as a job in mine action can be when lives are saved and outcomes favourable, each year deminers continue to die on the job.
“Deminers only make two mistakes in their career,” asserted Ljuca. “The first is when they become a deminer, and the second is when they die.”
According to Svjetlana Luledzja, a spokesperson for the Bosnian Mine Action Centre, since the war’s end, 131 deminers have been permanently disabled and 54 killed, including two veteran deminers last year in the town of Kupres.
After hearing of their deaths, 31-year-old Milan Cvoro, who had only just embarked on his career in demining, spent several days searching his mind for possible explanations. “The fact that they had long years of experience brought questions – How? What?” he said.
When Cvoro graduated from law school back in 2014, he never envisioned his workplace to be a minefield.
“I was interested in criminal and family law, and I dreamed of a courtroom, making important decisions,” he reminisced. But when he couldn’t get a job after passing the bar examination, he decided to seek employment elsewhere.
Cvoro worked in everything from morning bread delivery to retail, hospitality and customer service, yet nothing provided him with the sense of making a contribution that he so dearly craved.
So eight months ago, after completing a demining course conducted by the Bosnian Army, he embraced the opportunity to make a difference.
“I decided to do what’s up to me…to repair something, to feel more helpful,” he said. “We all would love for our lives to go in the direction that we imagined, but let’s do something in the period until that job comes through, to make our tomorrow more beautiful.”
Cvoro’s job as a manual deminer sees him entering confirmed mine-contaminated areas in search of landmines and unexploded ordnance. After carrying out a control check, he uses scissors to carefully cut any vegetation and bushes down to a height of five centimetres, conducts a visual inspection, and then performs a detailed check-up, scanning the soil for UXO presence with a metal detector.
When a strong signal is found, he uses a metal prodding implement to feel exactly where the explosive is, before digging a hole 15 centimetres in front of it. When the explosive is located, Cvoro then fences off the area with sticks and red tape and arranges for people like Vrana and Ljuca to remove and destroy it.
On Cvoro’s first day, he was assigned to work in a place where no one had walked in over 20 years. On his second day, he discovered a TMA-3 anti-tank mine and said that his head filled with regrets about all the things he had wanted to do in his life but didn’t, and all the people he had wanted to tell things to but hadn’t.
When Cvoro’s mother first learned of her son’s decision to work in demining, she was seriously concerned. “Do you really have to do that?” she asked him. “Can you not do something else?”
But for Cvoro, being a deminer provides significant meaning for him in the knowledge that he is helping to create a better tomorrow for his country.
“The work makes me more fulfilled because I can see the things that I do are heading towards a useful future for my nephew, neighbour or some other human… and even if no one else sees it, it’s enough for me to feel that,” he explained.
He was just three years old when the war broke out, but believes each individual has a personal responsibility to bring positive change to this post-war nation.
“It’s up to us to do things that we can, so that Bosnia will be more beautiful for us, our children and others,” he declared. “Why not give a part of ourselves in an effort to leave something behind us… at least a trace?”
Since becoming a deminer, Cvoro said he cherishes his family more than ever, always making sure to send them a text message when he returns to the control point after finishing a job.
“I have two sisters, and we hear from each other without fail, because you never know what the day brings and what dangers you can meet with,” he said. “Because believe me, as we walk out from the work site, we say: ‘Thank God.’”