“This is a good place to hide a mass grave,” says Severin, our driver. I hear myself asking a question I don’t want to know the answer to: “How do you know that?”
We’re somewhere near Olovo, a small town an hour outside of Sarajevo, getting deep into thick woods and testing the limits of our rental van on a narrowing gravel path.
“Because there is no civilization at all,” he laughs, finishing his sentence and comforting me not at all. After the war in the early ‘90’s, soldiers had to find civilian work in a ravaged economy. Severin, it turns out, worked for the Office of Missing Persons, mapping mass graves throughout the countryside. Like the men we’re on our way to meet, he built a post-war career in terrain like this, though I learn afterward this will be his first time walking through a minefield.
The path widens and a couple of official-looking men open a barricade to let us pass. We join a convoy of Civil Protection vehicles, who are waiting to lead us into the mine-contaminated area. I step out of the car and a woman in fatigues and combat boots approaches with a clipboard, saying only: “Signature. Blood type. Here,” pointing to what I presume is a liability release for my death or dismemberment. I sign and date and guess my blood type.
The commander, Senahid Abdihodzic, begins explaining the map we’re standing next to: “We are currently in the mine-contaminated area of Petrovici in the Olovo municipality. It covers two million square meters. You can see the investigation lane that we created and landmines and unexploded ordnances (UXOs) that were found during this recent period. So far, we have located more than 35 landmines and UXOs, and we expect to find more because this is a very highly mine-contaminated area, and the operations are not completed yet.”
“So far, we have found 35 mines in 40 days, and that is nothing compared to what we are expecting to find.”
Left: Senahid Abdihodzic, Site Leader, MDDC / Right: The map showing the activities of the demining task / Credit: Jake Rutherford
Nothing is lost in translation—this is a very highly mine-contaminated area, and the man standing next to Senahid is living proof. Nuraga Kadric is his name and he lives in the town nearby. He has—twice—stepped on a landmine on this hill: “I still remember the location where I stepped on the mine, even though it’s twenty years since the war was over, I still remember, and I will show you when we go up there.”
Not more than 100 meters up the hill, Nuraga calls over his shoulder and points to a single tree—this is the spot. Here, at 10:30am on the 23rd of December, 1993, he was passing through the area with his squadron and stepped on a mine.
Nuraga Kadric at the site of his first landmine incident / Credit: Jake Rutherford
He was lucky to only suffer serious injury to his right heel, but when he stepped on another landmine a year later, he lost half of his left foot.
Senahid’s team consists of eight deminers and a medic. Each deminer can typically clear about 70 square meters per day. Here, the placement of the mines isn’t random—they were placed in groups by soldiers to block forest paths and protect trenches along the confrontation line. Where you find one, you’ll likely find others.
Deminers use a metal detector and probe (essentially a long fork) to clear the terrain a step at a time, moving the wood bar at their feet to mark progress / Credit: Jake Rutherford
To me, the mine looks like a black plastic lens cap stuck in the dirt, not alarming at all. “Yeah, most people wouldn’t recognize the mine, it wouldn’t alarm them either,” says Senahid.
We continue hiking and another expert, Hamdija Sisic, points out a trench (a pile of branches) and next to it a big ‘X’ carved into the high-side of a tree trunk—a warning from the mine-planting unit for their comrades. Demining for more than 20 years in many different countries and contexts, these guys know all the tricks. “In time, you get to love this job—it’s the most human job you can do, saving other people’s lives,” says Hamdija.
Yet it’s not just a job for humans. If the vegetation weren’t so high and the terrain so steep, the team would have engaged a mine-detection dog team to help reduce the search area more quickly. The dog teams are much faster than manual deminers, able to clear up to 1,600 square meters per day.
Yes, you read that right: Dog teams. Able to clear up to 1,600 square meters per day, compared to 70. It’s work that Marshall Legacy Institute (MLI) is championing, and we’re here to learn how.
Descending gently into a backdrop of rugged, snowy purple mountain peaks, the only thing missing at the training center in Konjic is a Julie Andrews soundtrack playing over the loudspeaker. Instead, the dogs in the kennel bark excitedly and incessantly as we survey the training ground marked with 10’x10’ boxes and fuse-less landmines buried throughout.
Wearing full protective gear (a heavy flight jacket and helmet with face shield), Braninir Stankovic walks out to the field with his German Shepherd partner, Simone, on a 10-meter leash: “Simone is very sweet and loves petting. Sometimes she likes to work,” he laughs.
Training fields in Konjic with Nebojša and Gizmo in front and Braninir and Simone behind / Credit: Jake Rutherford
Getting serious, Braninir calls ‘souk!’ and training begins. Simone promptly sets out sniffing in a straight lane and returns to the trainer—her nose to the ground the entire time. Should she detect a mine (smelling the explosive powder), she would sit and remain still as the trainer walks the perimeter of the box, marking the X/Y coordinates of the mine with wooden stakes. Once Simone is safely out of the area, the manual deminer will use the markers and a metal detector to confirm the mine. At this point Braninir rewards Simone with a rubber ball game that apparently never ever gets old. And the search continues.
This method is used to reduce massive areas of suspected mine-contamination down to allow for more targeted searches and greater efficiency. The dogs train here for six-months before they’re matched with a handler whom they’ll typically work alongside for the duration of their demining careers. Braninir and Simone are nearing the end of their 1-month ‘integration’ period when they get familiar with each other before their first deployment.
Braninir and Simone head back to the kennel after training / Credit: Jake Rutherford
Aziz Fatic and Amir Badzak are two of the most experienced mine-detection dog trainers in the world, with twenty years of experience between them, they’ve prepared several hundred dogs for work all over the world: Bosnia, Croatia, Lebanon, Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Afghanistan, Syria, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia.
“My first dog was named Jason,” remembers Amir, “And I worked with him for 2-3 years. We were a good team. Then Jason went to Lebanon and I got Lekaron. Lekaron was the first dog that I trained independently. It took us a little bit of time to adjust to each other but then we worked together in Kosovo and Serbia for 4-5 years.” For these dogs, success is measured in meters, not mines.
Trainer, Amir Badzak / Credit: Jake Rutherford
“To be a good dog handler,” Amir says, “the most important thing is love. There is a perfect bond between the handler and the dog. It’s indescribable unless you experience it for yourself. It’s the perfect bond that exists.” Not surprisingly, most of the handlers adopt their dog-partner once they’ve retired from the rigors of demining.
They're heroes, really. Though the war ended long ago, they're still in it every day, making the land safe again.
Ivica Stilin, Operations Manager for MAG (one of MLI’s partners), has been working in humanitarian demining for nearly 25 years, developing teams and demining capacity in Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Libya, Sri Lanka, Bosnia + Herzegovina, Croatia. When I ask when the work became personal for him, he offers profound perspective:
The threats are a daily reality, and it’s often children who are most at-risk—their innocent curiosity a deadly trait and not just in Bosnia and Herzegovina: “In Angola, something like 20 years after conflict, people are still getting killed or injured on mines,” Ivica tells me. “We stopped one time because a little girl lost her hand and eyesight because she found something in a garden and that thing exploded,” he remembers.
It's the children who are most at risk for losing life and limb, and it’s the next generation that will inherit mine-riddled land if swift progress isn’t made soon. Perhaps then it shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does that it’s schoolchildren who are leading the world in fundraising for K9 demining.
For most American kids, landmines are a foreign concept, whereas Bosnian kids begin their mine risk education just after learning the alphabet.
“We start with the first graders, and we teach them how to recognize the potential dangerous areas because not all of them are properly marked,” explains Marija Trlin, who (among many other things) oversees the CHAMPS program for MLI in Bosnia. “If the grass is overgrown, if there are heavy bushes, if there are trenches, they are clear signs of mine contamination. We teach our children not to be curious and not to touch something in the unknown areas, how to save themselves if they find themselves in the contaminated areas. These are the classes we give to our schoolkids.”
Teacher Larisa Jahic nods along in emphatic agreement, “Avoid anything suspicious. If you see a cherry tree full of fruits, don’t go near because there are mines.”
Teacher Larisa Jahic with a few of her 8th grade CHAMPS participants / Credit: Jake Rutherford
Since helping to launch CHAMPS in 2014, Marija has established partnerships with six schools throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, which have monthly Skype calls with U.S. schoolchildren. She remembers one Skype call particularly well. She had arranged for a survivor, Dragana, to join and share her story with kids in Connecticut: “Dragana, when she was five, she lost her mother and a leg, and one girl asked her, ‘Was it harder for you to lose a mother or a leg?’ And Dragana answered, ‘That’s a good question. I think at that point I was more thinking about my leg because I was only five. As I was growing up, I realized what it is to not have a mother while you’re a young child, but I wasn’t aware of that at the moment she got killed.’”
It opens their minds on both sides. The kids are human beings and very often they show that they are better people than we are. -Marija
Elise Becker, VP of Operations for MLI, has observed many similar calls and questions. “On the U.S. side,” she says, “it builds exposure to a serious issue—the landmines issue—and builds global understanding and relationships. The middle school aged kids are the best age because they’re old enough to understand but young enough that they’re not over-committed already or cynical.”
In Ms. Jahic’s classroom, the students sit adorably, shoulder-to-shoulder in two rows, squeezing to fit everyone in the frame. They face a laptop screen where another group of kids sit similarly and stare back, halfway across the world in North Mianus Middle School in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Credit: Jake Rutherford
This cross-cultural friendship and learning—created and facilitated by Marshall Legacy Institute—has become a regular exchange for 28 schools throughout Connecticut. Since 2005, the kids of this school district have raised more than $160,000 to send 13 highly trained Mine Detection Dogs to five countries. In addition, they’ve helped provide mine risk education to kids growing up in post-war contexts, along with prosthetics and wheelchairs for young landmine survivors.
More than 40 schools in the U.S. participate in the CHAMPS program through Marshall Legacy.
A little girl holds a picture up to the webcam: “This is our school mascot…it’s a hawk, which is a bird,” she offers sweetly before being elbowed by a know-it-all, “They know that…” The U.S. teacher-moderator chimes in, “One of the dogs that they sponsored, they named ‘Hawk’ after their school mascot.” The Bosnian kids turn to each other and whisper-practice the new English word: Haw-k.
Amina speaks up for the Bosnian group and tells how they recently went to Sarajevo to support Fantomi Sitting Volleyball Team at their opening games where they won 1st place (to be fair, they’re long-time international champions and decisively the best team in Europe). “The members of the team are landmine survivors—disabled people who don’t have part of their body, like a leg or something like that. We received a volleyball signed by the whole team,” she says, as she holds up a picture of the moment on her phone.
Amina shows a photo on her phone of accepting the signed ball on behalf of their school, presented by Mirsad Mirojevic, Founding Member and Director of Fantomi / Credit: Jake Rutherford
Sidenote: The gentleman presenting the ball is Mirsad Mirojevic, Founding Member and Director of Fantomi. As a soldier during the war, he lost his right leg to a landmine on the slopes of Olympic Mountain Igman. His leg was amputated below the knee in an improvised surgery room. In the years that followed, he and dozens of others would meet daily to play sitting volleyball. “Our idea was to get us all together, a little group of people in the same shoes, to help each other and support each other, to get out of the house and start living normal life. Even during the war when we went through heavy bombings, we met every day and tried to practice,” he says. “With some improvised tools, no lights, no glass—it was drafty and cold—but we did it every day. So, we started the Fantomi club and now they are world champions and European champions and half of them, at least, are members of the national team. I couldn’t dream what would happen twenty years later.”
It’s made me a better man. And it taught me to help and support other people, because I felt in my own skin how important it is when someone reaches out and grabs your hand when you are down.
Mirsad Mirojevic, Director, Fantomi
Back in the classroom, the U.S. kids erupt with questions for Amina: “Is it just like normal volleyball but you play on the floor? Or are there different rules?”
The Bosnian students confer and respond, “The net is lower, and the court is smaller, but otherwise the rules are the same, but everyone can’t get off the floor. They have to sit all the time; they can’t stand up or jump.”
Another question, “Do they all have to have the same disability? Or is it just a disability?”
Amina explains, “No, every person is different. Some don’t have their leg above their knee, or some don’t have a finger or a toe.”
It continues like this, beautifully, for some time until the U.S. kids reciprocate with a big achievement: “We raised enough money this year, I think, to get another dog,” says one boy, “We named it Emily, after a girl that went to our school and died two years ago in a boating accident.”
The Bosnian students absorb sweetly, congratulate them and share that recently they were able to help a survivor named Damid: “When he got injured, it was during the war time and he was just a little kid, maybe 9 or 10 years old. He wasn’t that big, and he found a little toy car somewhere on the street, and he was about to play with it and drive it on the wall of a building, and that car was actually a mine, and it exploded in his hand. He lost his arm and his eye, so we gave him a prosthetic arm.”
Emela Saric, 14 years old, CHAMPS Participant / Credit: Jake Rutherford
In school we have classes which are going to change our lives, but this is going to save our lives.
Emela Saric, 14 years old, CHAMPS Participant
The empathy on both sides is enough to make me weep with hope for all of humanity—though not for long, as the U.S. classroom pivots abruptly, “Want to hear our graduation song??” I hear the little introverts moan “noooooo!!!” in the background, to no avail. And so begins a pre-pubescent rendition of the theme song for The Greatest Showman, followed by their favorite dance: The Floss. “It’s from a video game…” they offer, but no explanation is needed as this one is known by every 12-year-old with internet access.
“This project changed me as a person, firstly,” admits Ms. Jahic, “And then I can also see the impact those kids are making." She proceeds to tell me the story of Suada, a neighbor who lost her entire family and her right leg when a bomb fell on her house during the war. In meeting her, Marija determined that she needed a better prosthesis and the CHAMPS students rose to the challenge. "A few months later, I met her on the bus and she was getting in and out of the bus alone and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe my eyes," smiles Ms. Jahic. And as Ms. Jahic tells the story, Emela cries quietly next to me.
In a world and at a time when societies seem to default to division and causes more often make us calloused instead of compassionate, these profoundly simple exchanges between children an ocean apart are nurturing a sincere concern for the marginalized in the hearts of the next generation.
Sins of Our Fathers brings to screen the existential urgency of Marshall Legacy's work and that of the demining task.
Like Mirsad and Suada, Adis Smajevic is a victim of war and received a prosthetic leg at Bauerfeind with the help of CHAMPS. He remembers being peppered with questions from curious kids: “Sometimes the questions do sound funny, but they’re trying to understand how it is: How do you walk on snow? How do you ice skate with a prosthesis? Do you fall in winter time? Is it icy?” he chuckles. “And I’m happy that I got the opportunity to bring this closer to them, of course. I don’t expect little children to understand the problems that I’m going through, but I think that discussing these problems with children is as important for us as for them, because if they have this problem closer to them maybe they will be able to understand it better and help other people with disabilities.”
Adis Smajevic discussing his new prosthetic with a technician at Bauerfeind / Credit: Jake Rutherford
Adis was 15-years-old when a grenade was thrown into his bedroom. It was wartime, so he was operated on in a makeshift hospital without running water, electricity, or proper medication. “Until I was fifteen, I lived a normal life except for the fact that at one point in time the war started. But when I got injured, it was a life in constant pain—struggling with infections and hospitals, until I got sepsis and barely saved my life and went through the amputation process."
Today, nearly twenty years later, we are meeting the day before he is to be fitted with a new knee, a huge milestone to celebrate especially given all he’s endured and his two little ones who have long wanted to play tag and ride bikes with him.
This knee would not have been possible without Marshall Legacy and Bosnia’s humble hero, Mirsad.
“I met Mirsad a couple of years ago here at this prosthetic facility by chance when I was fitted for one of the prosthesis I had before,” remembers Adis. “It was a moment when I realized how important it is when you talk to a person with the same problems. It takes another disabled person to fully understand.”
Mirsad and Adis talk together at the Bauerfeind Prosthetic Facility in Sarajevo / Credit: Jake Rutherford
This is a sentiment that Mirsad knows this well and one that has fueled Fantomi since the beginning: “Having a group of people with similar problems, we actually exchanged all the experiences, feelings, emotions, pains. What we even did, we exchanged parts of our legs. Like, if this screwdriver fits you better or this foot, let’s change! Maybe yours will fit mine better. But it’s only possible among the people who understand you."
“During and after the war, I visited hospitals on a daily basis—at least 500 people I visited and supported,” says Mirsad. “Disabled people are not integrated into society, especially civil war victims. The only way for civil war victims to get proper aid and prostheses are through international organizations, like MLI.”
And that’s exactly how Adis is getting a new knee. “They figured out a way to get this electronic knee from USA, from his friends and partners, giving me this new opportunity. I am beyond grateful and happy,” says Adis poignantly.
Credit: Jake Rutherford
“I would probably have work 15 years and give all those salaries that I earn in 15 years for that knee. So, that technology is something I could not dream of."
Adis Smajevic, Survivor
Fantomi and Mirsad have been clutch for many, many young people struggling to reorient: “One of our best players—he is a member of the national team, he is captain of our team—he was only six when we found him, standing on the street without a leg. And now he is a very successful young man and I am very proud. His name is Mirzid,” says Mirsad.
“MLI opened a lot of doors for us. Through our mine risk education program (together with MDDC) we managed to educate thousands of people in this country—especially children—about the threat that landmines still pose to the citizens. We are very proud to be a part of the solution. And through CHAMPS, through mine victim assistance project, some of our players got new prostheses,” says Mirsad.
Credit: Jake Rutherford
It’s beautiful to stand in a farm and see what grows, a vision for how the land will be used once it’s clear and safe and free.
Just an hour north of Bauerfeind center, is Busovaca, a small town known throughout Europe for its organic fruits and award-winning raspberries. Marija takes us there to meet the mayor and learn what an impact landmines (and consequently demining) have on the rural, agrarian economy. The locals I meet are most proud of the land—its diversity, beauty, and bounty, even while the high grasses, wooded forests, and rolling hills are laced with landmines. I’m interested to understand how the health of the land participates in the healing of the people.
First is Marko, a farmer and community leader. Marko's farm has been in his family for ten generations. They grow plums, raspberries, apricots, which are exported all over Europe...and used for Schnapps-making at town barbecues. This is where I get my first taste of Bosnian honey, courtesy of Ibrahim Serdarević, a hobbyist beekeeper and honey historian. “It tastes like a Bosnian meadow,” he says, “A drink from heaven.” And he’s not wrong.
Left: Marko with his tractor / Right: Ibrahim harvesting his 'taste of heaven' honey / Credit: Jake Rutherford
For nearly a thousand years (since its first export in 1182 AD, Ibrahim tells us), Bosnia’s honey has been a precious get. Given this and what I’ve learned about the demining task, it makes sense that the name ‘Balkan’ means ‘the country of honey and blood.’
Marko's neighbor, Franjo, has lived in Busovaca for the past 60 years, and he's very proud of the place: “I am mostly proud of the nature, but also the people—they’re kind and gentle people, good-hearted. We were always friends, but during the war, we had to do it—the politics did it, it’s not the people. Now we want to rebuild our lives,” he says.
Marko's long-time neighbor, Franjo, standing in the raspberry fields / Credit: Jake Rutherford
If you were to visit him there—which is likely, as the mayor hopes for Busovaca to be a tourism destination once it's mine-free—he would take you to visit the ski slope (a feature of the 1984 Olympics) and the ancient monastery. He would invite you to pick fruits with him and go looking for precious stones and put your feet in the fresh water streams. It’s the simple joys and natural wonder that he most loves about this lovely place laced with landmines.
The land is created to feed people, not to kill people. Right now it’s doing both.
Marija Trlin, MDDC
Decaying Hotel Igman on Olympic Mountain, the same slopes where Mirsad lost his leg two decades ago / Credit: Jake Rutherford
We arrive at ‘Former Frontline in the Middle of Nowhere, No. 95’—I swear that’s the address we were given—and Sead Vrana (leader of the country’s most badass search and rescue team) briefs us on the situation: “In the last week, during our training, one of the locals from the village 10km away approached us and told us he buried the UXO there [pointing up the hill, toward the forest] and said, ‘Somewhere between the foxhole and the road.’”
Sead Vrana / Credit: Jake Rutherford
Sead’s team tried to search for it using the metal detectors but with this being a former confrontation line there was too much other scrap metal in the ground for the detectors to be effective. “So, today we are going to use a mine-detection dog to see if we can locate the UXO and then dispose of it. We will use the decayed hotel as a barricade between us and the detonation. This is a live situation, we do not know what or where it is, but the dog will try to find it. In this situation, nothing can do the job like a dog,” he says confidently.
“I want to highlight that all of these guys are former members of the air assault units, SWAT teams, special operations units, long-range recon, so you have actually a bunch of the special forces guys, who are deadly but gentle,” he jokes, sort of.
Jesmin and Rico are sent into the forest to begin searching, just like we saw in the training fields, except this time I, too, am in a heavy flight jacket and helmet…and my stomach’s in my throat.
It takes Jesmin and Rico just fifteen minutes to sniff out the ordnance. Jesmin marks the spot, pulls Rico out, and Suad Dzano—the disposal technician—approaches to confirm the detection. This is the most dangerous part, Sead tells us, because we don’t know yet what we’re dealing with and/or how corroded or volatile it might be—a mine, an unexploded ordnance, a 500lb bomb, you get the idea.
Jesmin + Rico enter mine territory to begin the search / Credit: Jake Rutherford
Suad uses a prodder to determine depth and size, then his hands to gently brush away the soil. He confirms a 60mm mortar shell with Sead over the walkie talkie, and Rico is rewarded with the rubber ball game. Their next step is to carefully hook a 100m rope to the tailfin of the shell and pull it from the ground slowly—this ‘hook and rope’ technique is to figure out if it’s simply fired and unexploded, or it’s booby-trapped. We are instructed to take cover behind the building, and wait.
When given the all-clear to approach and inspect the ordnance with Sead, we find a fully armed, unexploded 60mm mortar shell. “This one breaks into 600 fragments, and each fragment is deadly at 20m. Even at 50m, it is still very dangerous,” says Sead.
Credit: Jake Rutherford
Now that we know what we’re dealing with, we need to dispose of it, or ‘neutralize the threat permanently,’ as Sead says. To do that, the disposal technician will use a shape charge—a small tool filled with explosives designed specifically to disintegrate the explosive without triggering an explosion. We take cover again as the team applies the shape charge and runs a trip wire down to Sead, also handing him a box with red buttons. “You want to press the button?” he asks. Of course I say yes. He alerts anyone in the vicinity, tells me what to do, and then gives me the go ahead.
Now we go to survey the damage. “The fuse is removed, the body is intact, so no fragmentation and no high-effect,” Sead reviews. “This item is safe to transport now—this is the most desirable outcome you can achieve. The second best is if you get the jacket broken into several pieces and the third is detonation. So, this is the best that the technician can achieve.”
Suad and Sead congratulate each other on achieving the best outcome possible. / Credit: Jake Rutherford
With Rico making quick work of detection and Sead’s special forces disposal team, there is now one less dangerous, unexploded ordnance looming in the land.
Having held a neutralized 60mm mortar shell in my hand, which under other conditions might've claimed life or limb, the importance and imperative of Marshall Legacy's work is driven home.