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Thousands of leftover NATO cluster bombs pose a lethal threat to civilians.
In peacetime Kosovo, bomb casualties continue
Thousands of leftover NATO cluster bombs pose a lethal threat to civilians.
By Jeffrey Fleishman
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia - Long after the war had ended, Burim Jashari's left leg was blown off by an American-made cluster bomb in a quiet Kosovo wheat field.
"It was yellow, and it had a parachute," Jashari, 10, said of the cluster bomb - roughly the size of a soda can - that he and his friends found last month near the village of Baboshu. "We picked it up, and we banged it in the field. Then I poked it with a stick, and it exploded."
The blast knocked Jashari into the air and blew open his family's farmhouse door nearly 300 yards away. Now sitting in a dirty hospital room with a bandaged stump, Jashari is one of 316 people killed or injured by leftover NATO cluster bombs and Serb land mines littering postwar Kosovo. Even in peace, the province is a lethal landscape, where cows explode, horses are blown in half, and children are maimed.
Since NATO forces entered Kosovo last June, 61 people have died in explosions, including three NATO soldiers trying to disarm cluster bombs dropped during 78 days of air raids against Yugoslavia. To date, 255 people, mostly farmers and children, have been injured by bombs and mines sprinkled over nearly 154 square miles of mountains and flatlands.
Cluster bombs, which have accounted for 40 percent of Kosovo's postwar casualties, are among the most deadly weapons in NATO's arsenal. Designed to obliterate troop and tank formations, cluster bombs are dropped from planes in canisters that open at preset altitudes. Each canister releases 202 armor-piercing bomblets that drift to earth on parachutes and explode over wide areas. They have been prized weapons for decades and were released over Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq and Kuwait.
The U.S. Department of Defense says American planes dropped 1,100 cluster bomb canisters, with 222,200 bomblets, over Kosovo. In addition, British planes dropped about 500 bombs, each with 147 bomblets. The bombs had a failure rate of between 5 percent and 20 percent, which means that at least 14,785 unexploded bomblets are lying near schools, mosques, fields and streams.
"The problem is finding them," said Gertz Calitz, the United Nations chief of operations for mine and bomb removal in Kosovo. "There's not a complete 'footprint' on the ground. Because of wind, weather and of being dropped at high altitudes, bomblets spread out wider than we thought. One canister may have scattered over 700 meters. A lot of children have been killed just by throwing stones at them. They're very attractive for kids."
The World Health Organization estimates that 66 percent of cluster bomb victims in Kosovo are younger than 24. Because of their wartime effectiveness, the U.S. and other countries have refused to ban cluster bombs. But doctors and human rights groups note that the weapons go on killing years after conflicts have ended. Following the 1991 Persian Gulf war, for example, a Human Rights Watch report found that 1,220 Kuwaiti and 400 Iraqi civilians were killed by some of the estimated 1.2 million leftover cluster bomblets.
Cluster bomb destruction in Kosovo is heaviest in the western hills, where NATO air strikes concentrated on Serb troop and tank battalions. Farm fields are scorched and raw. Gashes streak mountain ridges. And outside Prizren, the local refinery is a crumpled mass of steel on oil-soaked earth. Amid this ruin, Jim Mackay and others in his company, European Landmines Solution (ELS), search for U.S. and British-made cluster bombs.
"If these cluster bombs go off, they'll rip you apart," said Mackay, a Scotsman with an easy brogue who has hunted and destroyed unexploded bombs from Somalia to Cambodia. "Even at 50 meters, you'll get hit with shrapnel." That's what happened to Ylber Krasniqi five weeks ago when cluster bomb fragments tore into his shoulder as he drove a horse cart through the dusk near the hilltop village of Oqe. His cousin, Ajrize Krasniqi, 16, was killed in the blast, and two other boys, Ymerli Shala, 8, and Burim Shala, 10, were wounded.
"Ajrize and Burim were on horses herding cows in the field," said Krasniqi. "I was passing with Ymerli in my cart about 15 meters away. I guess a cow must have kicked a bomb. I heard a big boom and then it felt like hot insects biting my skin. . . . Ajrize was blown two meters off his horse and killed. Burim's horse was blown in half, but Burim lived. . . .
"I would be dead if it wasn't for the three cows standing between the bomb and my horse cart. The cows took most of the explosion. All three died."
Villagers knew the field was laced with cluster bombs. In August, a farmer and a German soldier died after a villager picked up a bomblet and tried to toss it away from a small crowd of men. The World Health Organization has found that 50 percent of cluster bomb victims in Kosovo knew they were in dangerous areas but took risks in order to harvest crops and graze animals.
Less than a mile from Oqe, Martin Weavers and a team of ELS specialists laid a grid more than a quarter-mile square across a soggy field. Walking slowly between red and white tape, one specialist moved a metal detector over the soil as a light rain fell. Others looked for clues: yellow metal casings, parachutes the size of handkerchiefs. Many unexploded bomblets hit the earth with such force that they burrowed six to eight inches underground.
Five patches of gouged earth - each where a cluster bomb had been found and destroyed - dotted the field like huge paw prints.
"We know there are others out there," said Weavers, who, like Mackay, spends much of his time defusing bombs and mines in jungles and deserts around the globe. "Sometimes the farmers don't want to believe us, but when the owner of this field saw five explosions and shrapnel scars on his shed, he thanked us and made us a big dinner."
The United Nations and ELS have identified 600 cluster bomb sites across Kosovo. ELS has only reached 70 of them so far. The danger will increase when winter snows cover the landscape. By spring, Weavers said, some bombs will sink deeper into the soil and others will be hidden by vegetation.
"We've got to get as many sites done as we can," said Weavers. "These things have long life spans. Live cluster bombs are still being found in Cambodia nearly 30 years after they were dropped. They become hidden and then explode when a farmer's plow hits them or a child digs one up. . . . One of our biggest problems is that NATO - for security reasons - will not tell us exactly where all the bombs may have fallen. Sometimes they don't even know.
"It's kind of crazy. I remember after the gulf war in Kuwait, five minesweepers were killed because the military would not divulge exactly where antipersonnel mines were buried."
In Kosovo, according to ELS teams, cluster bombs were dropped in heavy concentrations, some in areas where there were no Serb forces.
"On a hill outside of Djakovica," said Weavers, "the Serbs constructed a dummy military site. They dug shallow trenches to fool military satellites. They rigged camouflage netting. They set up trucks and vehicles with no engines. They dressed mannequins as soldiers.
They made it look like a working base, a total decoy. NATO fell for it. NATO dropped between 10 and 20 canisters of cluster bombs. That's an expensive mistake."
In the Pristina hospital, the bandage wrapped around Burim Jashari's severed left leg was stained with iodine and blood. Dressed in a sweatshirt and underpants, Jashari, who wants to be a singer, pulled on a leather strap to lift himself from the hospital bed. Metal pins inserted to repair his shattered right shin bone sent a wince of pain across his face.
Jashari and his family fled Kosovo last March and ended up in a Macedonian refugee camp. They returned home three months later behind a column of NATO soldiers and tanks. Others in Jashari's village also survived the war. And soon all his buddies were back, running with him through the wheat fields.
"That's when we found the bomb," he said.
He paused as a girl with a missing leg sat up in a nearby bed. A nurse entered the room with a thermometer and a small cup of aspirin.
"I know I'll never walk again," said Jashari.