Bosnian boy's death puts focus on mine fields

The last clothes that 6-year-old Tarik Bijelic wore hang on a line in his yard: a red "Miami" basketball jersey, a pair of gray pants, blue size 2 sneakers.

The blood has been washed off. But the jersey carries the mark of tragedy: a long incision between the "i'' and the "a'' where doctors tried to get to the boy's shattered chest.

Tarik was hit by a land mine last week as he scavenged in the forest for firewood to help his family make ends meet.

He died in his father's arms.

Under an international treaty, Bosnia was supposed to be free of mines by 2009. Instead, it has quietly obtained another decade to clear the estimated 1,300 remaining square kilometers (500 square miles) of mine fields. In the 16 years since Bosnia's three-year war ended, mines have killed 591 people. So far this year, seven people have been killed and 3 maimed.

Tarik had been looking forward to starting school wearing a backpack stamped with his favorite cartoon character. Instead, he became his village's sixth land-mine victim — the casualty of a war that ended a decade before he was born.

Living next to mine fields is accepted as a fact of life here. The village was a front line during the 1992-95 Bosnian war and when the residents returned to their homes in 1996, they found their houses devastated, surrounded by mine fields. The Bijelic family, like many others in the village, makes a living by selling wood from nearby forests, ignoring signs bearing a white skull and the warning "Attention Mines."

Familiarity with tragedy doesn't blunt the pain.

At the hospital, Tarik's father, Ibro Bijelic, repeatedly whispered: "I wish it would have been me."

"Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of the most (mine) infested countries in the world," said Dusan Gavran, the head of the country's Mine Action Center. He said the only obstacle to making Bosnia mine-free is the cost: "We have the capacity, qualified deminers, equipment, but we lack funds."

Bosnia's war over its independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia took more than 100,000 lives. All three sides in the conflict — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats — secured their front lines with mine fields that, laid end to end, would form a belt stretching 8,700 miles, more than a third of the circumference of the earth.

Bosniaks, the least armed group, often laid mines hastily around cities they controlled and the Serbs besieged. This made it harder for the much better equipped Serbs to conquer them. That's how the capital of Sarajevo remained completely encircled by mine fields when the war ended.

Bosnia needs 40 million euro ($50 million) every year to meet its new goal of clearing the mines by 2019. It costs $2.50 to scan a square yard of territory — more than the going price for some land. It may sound cheap until you consider the vast areas of Bosnia that must be poked and prodded to ensure they're safe. All told, locating and removing a single mine costs $10,000.

By now, almost all mine fields are clearly marked. Villagers brave the mines out of economic necessity in a region where the unemployment rate is almost 30 per cent.

"The key factor is the economy. Life is very hard for the population," Gavran said. In the past five years all mine accidents happened in marked mine fields. "People enter them consciously. When we investigate, they tell us 'we have to,' and often even after they witness casualties, they still go."

In one case, he said, the Mine Action Center recorded three deaths in one family that occurred within 300 meters (yards) of one another. The victims were cutting wood in a forest marked as a mine field.

Searching for wood with his father, Tarik picked up a branch, apparently setting off the land mine. His father, wounded himself, carried him to a road and stopped a car, which drove them to a hospital. Doctors made a frantic attempt to revive the boy but it was too late.

At the Bijelic home, neighbors gather around a family album looking at Tarik's pictures. One shows him playing with children; in another he's in a plastic pool playing with a yellow rubber duck.

Tarik's younger brother, Bakir, plays with an old chair in the yard. He will inherit his brother's drying clothes.

"Hey," the 4-year-old calls out to mourners walking out of the house. "Do you know when Tarik will come home?

"It's boring without him."