Under the February sun in Peja, in western Kosovo, at the foot of the snow-covered Dinaric Alps, the setting is breathtaking. But Aleksandar (first name changed at his request) wasn’t there to enjoy the view. The Ukrainian had come to train for almost two months in the art of mine clearance. The 27-year-old joined his country’s armed forces at the very beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022. Almost a year later, at the request of his superior, he completed two training courses at this renowned international center.
“The instructors here have a lot of experience in demining. In Ukraine, we now have a serious problem with mines. So, it’s important knowledge that we’re acquiring and will share [when we get back],” said the twenty-something in a khaki uniform. “We learned to identify different explosive devices, and whether or not they can be moved. This can save lives or help make the right decisions,” said the former IT worker in Kharkiv.
Created after the war in 2010 by a former British soldier sent to clear mines in Kosovo in 1999, MAT Kosovo has trained nationals from 70 countries, including 120 Ukrainians, over the past 11 months. “In 1999, Kosovo was infested with mines,” recalled Arben Qorraj, the institution’s finance officer. Now in his fifties, he joined the Kosovo Liberation Army – the KLA – against the Serbian aggressor in 1998.
The war in Kosovo may have been one of the shortest the Balkans have known from the 1990s, but at least 100,000 mines were deployed in the territory of this former Yugoslav province between February 1998 and June 1999. NATO forces also dropped cluster bombs there. The conflict, which ended with the withdrawal of Belgrade’s troops after NATO bombed Serbia, claimed tens of thousands of victims in Kosovo, the majority of whom were Albanian Kosovars. On February 17, 2008, the country declared its independence. To date, it has not been recognized by dozens of states around the world, including Ukraine.
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The return of war to eastern Europe has revived traumas for many Kosovars. Several hundred thousand of them were forced into exile in the late 1990s. “Kosovo should be completely free of mines by 2025, with only a few isolated mountainous areas left. But there are more than 50 mined countries in the world, and the demand for clearance is still very high,” said Qorraj, who admitted to being “terrified” by the war in Ukraine. “1999 is still very fresh, especially for those who, like me, have lost loved ones.”
Wearing a gray cap, opaque sunglasses and a full beard, Hasan Sleiman explained on that day to Aleksandar and his comrades how to recognize a dozen harmless explosive devices identified by numbers on the ground. As many mines, cluster bombs, and mortars. “What you see here is the offshoot of an anti-tank cluster bomb. You have to neutralize the area for several hours before approaching it without any metal or walkie-talkie on you,” warned the Lebanese national, who has been living in Kosovo for almost six years. The training took place under the watchful eye of Sonny, a Labrador retriever capable of recognizing up to six types of explosives.
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