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Ex-Foes Clear Mines in Afghanistan

November 23, 2002

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BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ As a cold daybreak washed over Bagram Air Base, former enemies from Bosnia moved quietly through the battered Afghan landscape together, their lives in each other’s hands as they searched the parched soil for land mines and unexploded weapons.

Clad in body armor and face shields, Darko Salamic, Jaromir Josipovic and Hasib Huseinovic picked their way across the ground next to the runway, calling to bomb-sniffing dogs, watching metal detectors and probing the dirt with foot-long daggers.

Salamic is a Serb, Josipovic a Croat, Huseinovic a Muslim. All three are from Bosnia. Less than a decade ago, they were soldiers fighting against one another in the wars that tore their country apart. Now they work side by side in one of the world’s most hazardous jobs.

``You must trust the others _ this job is dangerous. If you don’t have trust, you can’t work together,″ said Salamic, 28.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina began after the Yugoslav republic voted for independence in 1992. Bosnian Serb and Croat militias fought the Muslims to contest the vote. Later Croats and Muslims fought the Serbs. The 1995 Dayton accords ended the war, setting up a new Bosnian state made up of two statelets _ the Croat-Muslim federation and a small Serb republic.

A total of 14 men from Bosnia-Herzegovina are now working at Bagram _ two Croats, four Serbs and eight Muslims.

Along with three Mozambican men, the Bosnians work for Washington-based Ronco Consulting under a contract with the U.S. State Department to clear mines from around the U.S. base.

In the Bosnian war, Josipovic fought as an infantryman with the Croat army, Huseinovic was a lieutenant and engineer in the Bosnian Muslim forces, and Salamic was a sergeant with an anti-aircraft battery in the Bosnian Serb army.

``The first time it was difficult to work with them. But the bosses told us, ’If you want to work, you must trust, that’s all,‴ Salamic said.

Huseinovic, 34, who is from Sarajevo and lost a dozen relatives in the fighting, said: ``Most of us didn’t want a war to happen, but it happened anyway. That’s the way it goes.″

``I don’t have any bad feeling for the Serbs because we all come from one country: Bosnia-Herzigovina.″

The group works six days a week, rising at dawn to drive the short distance to the plot of land the Army has directed them to clear.

The 10 dogs who work with them sniff out the explosives. The men then locate and mark them for army demolition teams to later remove or detonate.

Both Afghanistan and Bosnia are among the most heavily mined countries on earth. At Bagram alone, some 15,000 mines remain in the ground despite an estimated 7,000 mines cleared since last year.

Last month, the team cleared nearly 359,000 square yards of mostly Russian-made materiel, collecting 500 mines or unexploded weapons, said Jack Holly, who manages the group for Ronco. Recently the group began clearing a path along the base’s western edge to allow a road to be built for nearby Afghan villagers to walk to a reopened hospital.

The Bosnians are mindful that they are clearing mines in Afghanistan just months after the war ended, while millions of mines remain in their own country years after the fighting stopped.

Much of the international funding for mine-clearing in Bosnia has dried up, and corruption by local officials has driven international interest away, the Bosnian group said.

``We can’t clear mines from Bosnia because the world doesn’t want to pay us any money,″ said Josipovic, 49.

Working for the Americans, the Bosnians make about 10 times what they would make back home, Holly said. He refused to say exactly how much they receive.

``It’s much better to have a job, to make a salary, than not work at home,″ Josipovic said. ``Patriotism and idealism take a back seat to making a living.″

Amid the more immediate pressures of living far from home and doing a dangerous job, the animosities of the Bosnian wars have faded. The men even joke about the past now. Huseinovic pulled up the pant leg on his left calf to show an ugly scar from a grenade _ an injury he suffered just nine days before the end of the fighting.

Pointing at the scar, Salamic _ the Serb _ jokes: ``I wasn’t a very good shot.″

Huseinovic, the Muslim, laughs in return.

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