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Clearing Bosnia Mines Slows to a Killing Pace

Himzo Elezovic says he warned his wife, Safeta, time and again to beware of mines.

Throughout Bosnia's war, a portion of their land had been used by enemy Serbs as a sentry post. Mr. Elezovic - a former soldier who had served with United Nations troops in the Sinai 30 years ago - suspected the post had been mined. So when the war ended, and the Muslim couple was able to return home, Elezovic told Safeta of the unseen danger.

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"She liked to work and to keep the yard clear," he remembers now, perched on the dirt brim of a trench and pointing. "Then she walked down there, and said 'Himzo, you are always afraid of everything!' "

Safeta was raking leaves when she stepped on a mine and was killed. She became yet another victim of a land mine, a weapon that continues to kill Bosnians indiscriminately. "She only wanted to fill in the trench, so that we could use the picnic table by the cherry tree again," Elezovic says, his red eyes filling with tears.

The site has now been marked off as a minefield by NATO peacekeeping forces. They had to de-mine a 2-1/2-foot-wide trail 25 feet long in order to safely retrieve Safeta's body.

Along the path - which Elezovic had just run down - they found three more mines. A neighbor found three more nearby. A week before, two children were badly injured while playing with a mine in a nearby cemetery.

"Who will clear these?" Elezovic asks. "What will happen in the future?"

For NATO military engineers, Elezovic's minefield is just one tiny box on their map of Bosnia, which is thick with similar boxes. They estimate that up to 3 million mines have been laid here during four years of war. These "silent sentinels" lie in wait around bridges, are sown in fields and along river banks, and are connected to booby traps in abandoned houses.

The International Red Cross and some nations are trying to ban land mines altogether. A UN conference on land mines concluded over the weekend in Geneva. The Red Cross called new UN protocols adopted there "woefully inadequate."

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Proponents of an all-out ban - who include more than a dozen retired American generals - say the conference circumvented the issue of a ban by categorizing mines as "dumb," if for decades they can be touched off at any time, and as "smart" if they can be programmed to deactivate after a set period.

The Red Cross says the protocols "will encourage the production, transfer, and use of a new generation of mines, while not prohibiting any existing types other than, eventually, nondetectable antipersonnel mines." Notes Patrick Fuller, a Red Cross official in Zagreb, Croatia: "Smart mines, dumb mines - no matter how sophisticated they are, they still kill people indiscriminately."

In this northwest corner of Bosnia, fiercely contested by Serb and Muslim armies, NATO officers are worried that the casualty figures will grow as refugees like Himzo and Safeta return home. This is the first spring of peace; the weather is warming, encouraging people to work their land.

"There is no shortage of mines here," says Sgt. Maj. Ken Toomey, a Canadian engineer who tracks the mine problem. "We could have 10,000 engineers here and all the de-mining equipment, and there would still be lots of work."

Bosnia is just one country with such a lingering peacetime mine problem. Red Cross statistics point to a global crisis. Every month 2,000 people are killed or maimed by mines worldwide. More that 110 million mines are believed to be buried in 64 countries. Just as many more are already manufactured and kept by nations in stockpiles for future use.

Experts say that if not a single new mine is laid, it would take 1,100 years at the current pace to rid the earth of mines. But last year alone 2 million new mines were laid, 20 times the number that were removed. Mines can cost as little as $3 each to make, but cost up to $1,000 each to find and remove.

As part of the Dayton peace accord, rival factions agreed to de-mine their territory. But now they are slowing down because both sides are demobilizing soldiers, and few want to take the risk in peacetime. Nine NATO troops have been killed by mines so far.

Otoka, a town in northwest Bosnia largely destroyed in the war, is still laced with mines. In a local school, NATO troops found a locked cupboard with a box of 20 live mines. Not far away, an old woman digs unconcerned in her yard, while a red triangle sign labeled "MINES" hangs five feet away on the other side of a stone wall. Across the street, the charred and shattered end of a stake is all that remains of a mine that took the life of a neighbor.

Canadian troops have provided 6,000 warning signs, In western Bosnia, troops provide 50 sets of de-mining equipment, including metal detectors. But the menace is well-hidden. "It amazes me," says a British officer who asked not to be named. "People working in their gardens disregard these things, like they are another mole in the garden."

Many Bosnians do know the risks of mines. One farmer in Otoka - former Bosnian government Army commander Safet Mehic - takes a break from his gardening. Looking at the next field, he points excitedly with a dirt-covered arm: The grass has been burned off, exposing three menacing devices.

"Mines!" he yells out.

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