A Place to Feel Safe: U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction Helps Bosnian Family Return Home

The word “home” brings to mind a place familiar to most of us -- a place to feel safe, a place surrounded by family, a place to belong.  But around the world, when many families displaced by conflict return home, they not only discover communities destroyed or unrecognizable due to war -- too often, they also find landmines and unexploded bombs, buried artillery shells, and other munitions that can continue to injure -- or even kill -- for years after the guns fall silent.

Between 1992 and 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced internal armed conflicts associated with the break-up of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. These conflicts left Bosnia and Herzegovina with the highest levels of landmine and explosive of remnants of war contamination in the Balkans. The village of Ravne, located in the Vares Municipality, stood between two opposing groups during the conflict.  Consequently, Vares is one of the most mine-contaminated municipalities in the country.  

A few months back, I traveled to Ravne with Nicholas Hill, our Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and my colleague, Senior Conventional Weapons Destruction Advisor Mark Adams, where we met the Cikmis family.  Eleven years after fleeing, Zahid and Zilha Cikmis, both in their mid-70s, returned to the village of Ravne in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  They found their house in ruins, and their property and surrounding community littered with landmines, limiting their ability to move freely throughout the village and the nearby forest.

Here’s what we did about it: The U.S. Department of State, working through our partners at ITF Enhancing Human Security (ITF) deployed mine action teams to survey and safely clear landmines located in the village. Although not as well-known as other forms of humanitarian assistance, humanitarian mine action can impact the lives of ordinary people in profound ways, since it is often the first step in helping post-conflict countries recover by bringing families back home, getting farmers back in their fields, and clearing roadways so trade and commerce can flow.

U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission, Nicolas Hill, meets with Zahid and Zilha Cikmis near their home in the village of Ravne, Bosnia and Herzegovina [Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Sarajevo]

Upon our arrival, the family greeted us with big, warm hugs and kisses. Although we could not communicate in the same language, our translator said that the family was so ecstatic to see us, thanked us profusely for all the support and assistance we have provided to them, and hoped that we would continue this great work and give other families this same wonderful gift -- the gift of once again feeling safe in their own home and community.

After over a decade of being away from home, Zahid and Zilha can now freely move about their property without fear. At the time of our visit to Ravne, ITF had already cleared nearly 23 square meters (approximately 28 square yards) of landmines in the Municipality of Vares. Zilha explained how much of a difference the clearance made to those living in the village. She is happy to be able to walk in her garden once again and hopes to one day hike through the forest once again to collect mushrooms as she did before the war.

Zahid and Zilha are not alone -- in many places around the world, the presence of landmines and explosive remnants of war pose a risk to refugees trying to return home and rebuild the lives they left behind. That’s why since 1999, the United States has invested more than $100 million in Bosnia and Herzegovina for conventional weapons destruction programs. These programs cover a wide variety of activities that assist the civilian population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to include the clearance of landmine contaminated areas, risk education for at-risk populations, and assistance to survivors of landmine or explosive remnants of war accidents.

Much more work remains ahead: Bosnia and Herzegovina remains heavily contaminated with landmines and explosive remnants of war. According to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center’s most recent survey, more than 1,000 square kilometers (over 386 square miles) is suspected mine area, affecting over 500,000 civilians. In addition to the risk of casualties, the presence of landmines slows socio-economic development and the recovery process after conflict. It is easy to see how long after the conflict is over, landmines and explosive remnants of war can have a destabilizing effect for decades.

Through the Department of State’s humanitarian mine action assistance, returning refugees are able to live in their own homes and dream of the possibilities beyond their front door. Since 1993, the United States has contributed more than $2.4 billion to more than 90 countries around the world to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly proliferated, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war.  For more information on U.S. humanitarian demining and Conventional Weapons Destruction programs, check out the latest edition of our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.

About the Author: Natalie Wazir serves as a Program Manager in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement with the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. 

An unidentified mine expert looks for landmines where three Bosnian children were killed when they stepped on a landmine in Sarajevo, Bosnia
Posted by Natalie Wazir
June 30, 2015

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