Years After War in Kosovo, Land Mines Scar Albania

By Barbara Frye
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 10, 2006

DOBRUNA, Albania -- Seven years after the Kosovo conflict ended, NATO bombs continued to explode this fall in the mountains of northern Albania.

This time, however, it was a reassuring sound. Up in the hills, men in protective gear were setting off bomblets that alliance warplanes scattered along the Kosovo border during the 78 days of hostilities.

Within earshot but miles away, men and women combed other hillsides, inch by inch, on hands and knees, searching for land mines planted by combatants in the ground war between Serb forces and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian separatists.

For isolated villages such as Dobruna, it's been seven years of death, amputations, shrapnel wounds and blown-up farm animals, seven years of blocked-off grazing lands, forests and water supplies. The explosives have choked off any hope of development here, denying more than 25,000 people access to parts of their land, according to government estimates.

"Before the war, we used to depend on growing crops and raising animals, but without being afraid of losing our lives," said Dan Mynxyra, the 54-year-old village leader, elected by Dobruna's 36 households. He was sitting on a grassy plot while several other residents looked on. Above, the ash- and oak-covered hillsides had turned a brilliant mix of pumpkin, canary and pale green.

According to Mynxyra, most residents fled the day that NATO began bombing Kosovo, March 24, 1999, in a campaign to halt attacks by Serb forces on ethnic Albanians in the breakaway province. They returned to a familiar landscape made lethal by land mines and booby traps. Dobruna had become one of the border's most explosives-contaminated villages.

The terrain here is more vertical than horizontal, and planting and grazing land is so precious that before organized de-mining began, some residents tried to clear fields and paths on their own, often with tragic results. Thirteen of the village's 290 residents have been injured by land mines, some planted within yards of their houses.

In addition, between 200 and 300 of Dobruna's cows have fallen prey to mines in the past five years, according to Jonuz Kola, who runs a private group that assists mine victims. Kola has tried to dissuade villagers from following stray animals into suspected minefields, with limited success -- loss of a cow is a catastrophe for a poor family.

Sitting on the ground next to Mynxyra, Kola laid out his warning once again. An onlooker yelled out: "If your cow goes into the minefield, you have to go and take it out." Kola smiled and sighed.

A few steps away, the women of the Mula family stood in their yard amid beehives and dried husks, preparing corn to be ground for the winter. Neighbors' chickens wandered in, bees buzzed around and a young cow relaxed on the floor of a small barn.

Jashar Mula emerged from the house with a photo of his 24-year-old son, Korob, sitting on what appeared to be a hospital bed, one leg and both arms reduced to bandaged stumps. His parents said he stepped on a mine and then fell on another while shepherding a flock six years ago.

While his wife, Jose, looked on in distress, Jashar Mula called the day of Korob's accident the worst of his life. "If someone can help me in America, if possible," he said, "send me and my son to the U.S. I will give my hand to Korob, keeping one only to eat."

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