Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Category Archives: The Balkans

How to Get Out of a Minefield

I’m often asked if I worry about getting shot when working in some of the places I go to.

Not really.  I mean, it is something I am always aware of and something I try to be prepared for, but the possibility of getting shot is not nearly the nightmare that people assume it is.

No, the thing I am most afraid of, other than yet another severe digestive upset due to bad water, is stepping on a land mine. That would be followed in close order by being trapped in a minefield. Just being in a country where there are minefields is also bad.

Of all the instruments of war mines have got to be the most obscene, if obscenity can be said to have a scale. Mines are obscene because they kill and maim without any human direction.Kabul Airport landmines

While an AK 47 or an F 18 can murder with the best of weapons they still have to be pointed by a human mind. Whether a sane human mind is behind them or not is not an issue, the point is that some thinking, even on a barbaric level is necessary for all other weapons of war to operate.

A landmine though just sulks in the dirt and mud waiting for anything to come along, a goat, a truck, a six year old kid, a general, it really doesn’t matter what.  Its a type of killing that is so detached that it truly is an inhumane way of death.

My first experience with the things was during the civil war in Somalia. So many American and Soviet manufactured mines had been laid in the country that you truly were an idiot to go off wandering through the bush.

Along the border with Northern Somalia and Ethiopia the deposed regime in Mogadishu had laid some million mines in the sand and bush between the two countries. When the civil war hit Hargeisa the refugees only had one direction to flee, to the west and Ethiopia and through the unmarked mine fields.

So many refugees were killed and maimed crossing the minefields that the survivors I met in the Kebrebeyeh Refugee Camp in Ethiopia told tales of following in the tracks of the dead and staying as close as possible to the explosion sites where people had been blown apart.  By deliberately staying to tracks where people had died they were assured of a safer passage to Ethiopia.

In the city of Mostar Bosnia I spent a fascinating if horrific day with a Danish mine removal expert. I learned that the warring sides during the disintegration of Yugoslavia had used some 14 types of mines in the millions.

Some were absolutely innocuous to people because they could only be set off by the weight of a tank, but others were deliberately designed to kill people.

There was one designed to look like a vacuum or Thermos bottle, a type that looked like a child’s toy and deliberately so in order to kill kids, and a type that looked for all the world like a hockey puck; three inches in diameter,black and and about an inch think.

They floated, and the savage killing armies of the Former Yugoslavia would do things like fill a five tonne dump truck with the things and dump them en masse into the rivers so they would be carried downstream to the children of their enemies.

In Tuzla I came across a farmer’s field very close to the town’s center. Crop Protection in Tuzla-036The whole thing was ringed by scrap panels ripped from shot up vehicles, a metallic fence so bizarre it would pass as post modern art.  But when you looked closely at the fence you could see wires strung out to grenades and land mines. I was told that the farmer had also seeded his fields with anti personnel mines in order to stop people stealing his crops.

In Afghanistan I never walked anywhere unless I was on concrete or I had received iron clad assurances from a United Nations demining expert that the area was clear.  The country is filthy with land mines and like the farmer in Tuzla Afghan farmers, especially the ones with poppy crops, dig them up to plant in their own fields.

I was at the Kabul Airport the day that passengers on Ariana Airlines, the state airline, had a grossly delayed arrival.

The land around and within the Kabul Airport has to be one of the most heavily mined areas in the world.  Even now after years of constant United Nations demining operations.

It had been mined first by the Soviet backed regime that took control of the country after the Soviets made the disastrous mistake of invading the country. When the mujaheddin warlords, one after another, captured the airport they added mines.  Then with the coming of the Taliban they mined it, and mined it some more.  There were so many that in some places they formed layers like sedimentary rock, going down several feet.

Even today when you look out over the taxiways and the main runway you can see hundreds of different colored flags marking out the known mines.

Now, the very first rule to follow if you find yourself in a minefield is Stop Moving, not as much as a centimeter. Wait for rescue. No matter how long it takes.

That Wednesday afternoon when the Ariana flight from, I believe it was Herat, arrived and accidentally, and very slowly, ran its nosewheel off the concrete taxiway and over about 20 feet of dirt.  You could hear the deep sucking sound of people throughout the airport gasping a lung of tense air and waiting for the explosion.

It didn’t happen but it took an army of blue suited mine clearance technicians moving with agonized slowness over the area to clear a safe path for the airline back to the concrete. I  didn’t stay for the end but when I left at sunset about seven that night the aircraft still hadn’t moved.  I heard later that after everyone had been safely removed from the aircraft it took the cleaners a very long time to return it to service. It had taken off from Herat with full toilets because there had been no way to empty them there.  After some eight hours of enforced captivity on top of a minefield the passengers ended up turning the cabin into a cesspool.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a minefield?

You know the first rule, Do Not Move. Just sit very still and wait for rescue.

If you are in a vehicle and you can clearly see the wheel marks by which you got into trouble you can gamble your way to safety. Climb on top of the vehicle without touching the ground (and God help you if you drop anything out of your pockets as you do so) and climb down the rear of the vehicle and carefully walk, one pace at a time, along the dead center of the tracks.

But keep in mind that some mines are designed to detonate the second time that their trigger is depressed.

Personally I would wait until I was almost dead from hunger and thirst before trying that trick.

That also goes for amateur attempts to clear your own way out by probing the ground slowly and carefully with a long knife or thin piece of steel.

There is a particular technique for making this work but I’m not going to describe it because it is one of those craft type life skills that must be taught to you in person and practiced assiduously.

It’s not fear of lawsuits that prevents me from telling you how to do it because unless you are most unfortunate and you survive horribly maimed, the dead can’t sue. I just don’t want to be responsible for your death.

That said, I will amend what I just said in this way. It would give me great satisfaction to watch any of the people who designed land mines, or those responsible for planning the layout of minefields, to try to walk their way out of a minefield while wearing blindfolds and lead weighted boots.

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