It is estimated that there are still several hundred square kilometres of heavily mined areas in Croatia. This is not just a threat to the local people but also prevents them from using their forests and farmlands. Croatia was supposed to have destroyed all anti-personnel mines on its territory by March 2019 in line with international agreements. This deadline has now been extended to 2026, because in spite of major national investment and financial support from the EU, demining is only advancing at a slow pace. The remaining areas are difficult to access and the demining work is costly and time-consuming. This makes Croatia reliant on external support. Switzerland has provided CHF 3 million to support mine-clearance measures and improve the situation for mine victims and their families. Thanks to Switzerland's contribution the demining process is now advancing more quickly.
Kotar-Stari Gaj woods cleared in record time
In September 2018, 294 local deminers defused 3,585 explosive remnants of the Croatian war covering 1.8 km² of the Kotar-Stari Gaj woods. The Swiss-funded operation was carried out in record time without interruption – only 39 days – thanks to thorough planning by the Croatian Mine Action Centre (CROMAC) and major human effort. When this is compared with the yearly average in the whole of Croatia (two to three thousand mines defused each year), the efficiency of the Swiss project is clear. 2018 marked a record high for CROMAC with 9,567 defused explosive remnants of war. This area can only be definitively cleared as productive land when the surrounding areas have also been demined.
The section of the Kotar-Stari Gaj woods that was cleared of mines under the Swiss project lies 60km to the south of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, and borders Bosnia. It is one of the most dangerous mined areas in Croatia. There were more civilian casualties in the neighbouring villages after the war than during the war itself. Since 1991, 31 people have died and 45 have been seriously injured because of the mines in these woods alone. A monumental headstone commemorates the death of a local deminer. Although the surrounding communities are grateful for the mine clearance action and feel safer nowadays, there is still a certain fear of the woods because of such bad experiences over the years.
Awareness-raising helps reduce casualties
There has not been a mine-related incident in Croatia since 2017. One of the main reasons for this is raising public awareness of the risks involved. More than 12,300 mine warning signs have been put up throughout the whole of the country. CROMAC has also devised an app – Misportal – which provides detailed maps of dangerous areas to help people. App users get a warning if they start going towards a mined area. If they are in danger, they can press an alarm button which puts them through directly to the responsible service. The app was among the six best inventions awarded the Geneva Centre for Security Policy prize for innovation in global security in 2018.
Economic and social integration for mine victims
In addition to physical demining and awareness-raising, victim support is an important pillar of the overall package of measures that fall under mine action. The Swiss-Croatian project includes the provision of support to victims and their families. A national database with an analysis of the needs of mine victims is under way, and measures to support the economic and social integration of affected people are being developed and should be implemented by the project's close in 2024.
There is still much to do. Estimates suggest there are still around 32,000 explosive remnants of war spread over 368 km² of Croatian territory. This means that Croatia will continue to need Switzerland's support in the future, in order to ensure safer living conditions for its people.