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Delicate task of clearing land mines isn't for Rambo

This week, an all-female team of ethnic Albanians began new jobs asdeminers.

After being expelled from her home by Serbian forces and spending three months as a refugee in Albania, Nora Kelmendi returned to Kosovo to build a new life with her husband and two young daughters.

Following a month of training, Mrs. Kelmendi began work this week at her first paid job. She and her female colleagues cause quite a stir in their town as they stride about in their bright red, thickly padded uniforms. They are members of a Norwegian-run, all-female demining team.

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"My husband is very proud of me, that I am brave and took this decision on my own," she says.

Hidaverdi Kelmendi knows what his wife's profession will require. He is a demining squad leader.

Such work has clearly boosted the status and self-esteem of women in Kosovo's traditional, male-dominated society, and fulfills a vital task. Kosovo is believed infested with tens of thousands of land mines left over from the recent conflict.

The most common victims are farmers, desperate to work their fields, and curious children.

"Since I came back in June, so many kids have been killed or maimed," says Kelmendi. "I just imagined how I'd feel if my daughters were to step on a mine."

It's not only maternal instinct that has drawn 68 women from this eastern corner of Kosovo into the demining business. Some of them must now assume the role of family breadwinner after their menfolk were killed during the conflict.

The humanitarian organization Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) trains and pays its deminers a monthly salary of 800 German marks ($423) - a princely sum in a province where two-thirds of the workforce is unemployed.

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By contrast, teachers who recently went on strike over unpaid back wages were rewarded with only 200 marks ($105).

'Better suited' for the task?

More than money, though, NPA project manager Borge Hoknes says he believes women may be better suited than men for this kind of work. Mr. Hoknes, formerly a deminer with the Norwegian Army, says women deminers generally are more committed and motivated and display a more even temperament.

"Men want to be rough and tough, and this is no place for a Rambo," says Hoknes, who has also trained local men and women as deminers in Lebanon, Cambodia, and Angola.

"We want to avoid accidents in which someone kills themself, and hurts our organization," Hoknes adds. "You need a lot of patience in this type of work, where, depending on the amount of vegetation, you may need all day to clear a [6- to 16-foot] lane."

Risky business

The work is indeed dangerous. Land mines killed two British Gurkha soldiers early in the Kosovo peacekeeping mission. And Hoknes says NPA has lost four of its deminers in its work around the world this decade.

Kelmendi is aware of the risks. "I'm not afraid," she says. "I'm an optimistic person, that I'll be OK. I just have to be careful."

Experts say it may take several years to clear the province. In negotiations with NATO to end air strikes, Serbian forces identified roughly 620 minefields scattered across geographically strategic mountain passes and agricultural plains.

The Serbs also mined a number of schools and playgrounds, and boobytrapped toys have been found lying on the ground.

Several people a day are killed or injured by land mines in Kosovo. Medics at the US military base here have already treated 76 victims, many of them children.

A few have also been injured when trying to pick up odd-looking, unexploded cluster bombs dropped by NATO aircraft.

Mine awareness

Various foreign and local organizations are trying to educate the public quickly on the hazards of veering from beaten paths. UNICEF, the United Nations children's fund, has worked mine awareness into the local school curriculum, and a British nonprofit group recently produced a song on the topic, sung by Albanian children.

Kelmendi's daughters, ages 8 and 3, got an earful of mine awareness from foreigners during their time in an Albanian refugee camp. The lessons are being reinforced at home by their parents. Their father was among the first batch of 90 recruits trained by NPA, of which 17 were women.

Early on, there were tensions between some of the men and their female counterparts, says Hoknes. A few macho types with the "wrong attitude" were kicked out.

Women deminers from that first group have been out in the field, some of them commanding squads of their own.

Kelmendi was in the second training group, made up exclusively of women. She and 50 others graduated last week.

"I thought I'd do the training, then think it over again," she says. "But now it's in my blood.

"People tell me, 'You're very cool. How come you're not afraid?' " she says. "But I tell them I'm a lady Tarzan ... I don't have words to describe how good I feel about it. This is my contribution to Kosovo: to help clean up the mines."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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