Deadly Landmine Landscapes: Beauty, Tranquility, Lethality

Brett Van Ort’s photographs of Bosnia and Herzegovina focus on discarded dangers lurking below the surface.

landmines litter the lovely landscapes of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Look, But Don’t Step! This Bosnian pond is an inviting vision of relaxation and recreation. Locals keep their distance from it for fear of triggering one of the 3 million landmines left behind after the 1990s Balkan war. (Photo: Brett Van Ort/Minescape)

The statistics are staggering—more than 100 million landmines on Earth. At the present rate of mine clearance, these weapons will remain hidden on the planet for some 1,000 to 1,500 years.

A huge cache of secreted munitions and landmines litters the countryside in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ordnance left over from the wars in the early 1990s. I traveled there in late 2009 to photograph areas that were once the front lines of the Bosnian War.

Among the 34 countries currently harboring landmines, Bosnia represents a landscape familiar to Westerners. Rolling hills, alpine meadows, canopied forests and peaceful bodies of water are prevalent in this country. Americans are familiar with these landscapes. They look similar to our weekly walk outside of town, or our hiking trip in Appalachia or the High Sierra this past summer.

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Egypt’s deserts, Afghanistan’s barren peaks and Cambodia’s dense jungles are foreign to us. They hold a sense of foreboding and danger. Bosnia’s sublime beauty is familiar to us, comforting, but what lies beneath the surface of that reassuring groundcover—nearly three million mines—is not. As a consequence, our inherent fear of nature that has slowly subsided over the past several centuries comes rushing back as we look at these dangerous landscapes.

Manufactured by the former Yugoslavia, the PROM bounding fragmentation anti-personnel mine has a 100-meter blast radius and cost approximately $8 to produce. (Photo: Brett Van Ort/Minescape)

A vast majority of the mining during the Bosnian War was undocumented or known only to paramilitary foot soldiers that fought in the areas. Former soldiers who survived landmine incidents told me that they would scatter anti-personnel mines around their foxholes at night. They would make a rough map on the back of a cigarette pack, only to leave in haste without removing the mines if the enemy was close to overrunning their position in the morning. This lack of documentation makes the job of landmine removal even more slow, arduous and dangerous.   

According to BHMAC (the Mine Action Committee for Bosnia and Herzegovina), just over 3.5 percent of the country was contaminated by landmines in 2009. The de-miners feel that nowhere in the countryside is safe. They may clear one area, but a torrential downpour will unearth landmines nearby. These unearthed landmines find their way into vicinities that were deemed safe weeks, months or even years ago.

Also, new minefields pop up on a monthly basis even 17 years after the war ended there. Many innocent civilians continue to lose their lives to this day.

Numerous people, from friends to NGO workers and villagers in these areas, told me the safest place to be was on tarmac. I remember interviewing and photographing a survivor outside of Doboj. We were at his home, and he showed me munitions his sons found while playing near the house.

A lower extremity prosthetic leg ranges in cost from $5,000 to $50,000. (Photo: Brett Van Ort/Minescape)

We went to the side of the house where he showed me a trench that had been dug years ago. An overgrowth of brush, vines and small trees now hid this earthen relic. 

As we approached the trench, my translator yelled my name and said in English, “I wouldn’t get any closer than that!”

I looked back. He was standing nearly 30 meters clear of us. Even though we were near this man’s home, my guide was telling me I had gone too far already. It was at that point I felt nowhere was safe along the former front lines of the war.

Months after I shot this project, I felt that the work, along with the devastating effect landmines inflict on a populous, also displays the regenerative power of nature.

The photographs show the insatiable human appetite to expand, explore, conquer and transform nature into civility.

Ironically, a man-made killing machine is protecting the natural setting in this instance.

What do you think poses the greater danger to future peace: Leftover landmines or the lasting psychological trauma of war? Leave a prognosis in COMMENTS.

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