Report

As if Catastrophic Flooding Wasn't Bad Enough…

The waters drowning Bosnia have unearthed thousands of land mines.

POBUDJE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Mihret Omerovic knows what it is to rebuild. His village, Pobudje, was burned down 22 years ago when it was taken by Serb forces. He fled with thousands of other Bosnian Muslims to nearby Srebrenica, but then had to flee the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Omerovic, 35, returned to rebuild his home in 2002. He started a family and began to till the land.

But now, following the worst Balkan flood in at least a century, Omerovic's water-logged farm, like those of the mostly agrarian villagers around him, will bear no fruit. And he will have to restore his home. "Once again," he said, "it feels like we have to start from the beginning."

The flooding, wrought by three months' worth of rain falling in only three days, covers a territory larger than the U.S. state of Massachusetts in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. Almost 1 million Bosnians have either been evacuated or have left their homes because of flooding or landslides, according to Fahrudin Solak, acting head of the civil defense service in Bosnia's Federation (one of the country's two major regions). People have crammed into emergency accommodations. Many are still waiting for electricity. Across the region, close to 50 people have died due to the natural disaster.

"The physical destruction is not less than the destruction caused by the war," Bosnian Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija said Monday, May 19, in a news conference. "During the war, many people lost everything. Today, again they have nothing."

But in addition to the loss of homes and land, other dangers lurk. Much of Bosnia was mined during the war, including the hills above Srebrenica, where Omerovic once sought refuge. The rains have unearthed and moved many of these relics of past conflict, threatening to raise the death toll of the floods even after the waters have receded. (Since the war ended in 1995, more than 600 people have been killed and more than 1,700 more wounded by land mines, according to Bosnia's Mine Action Center. Four people have been killed and 12 wounded this year alone.)

The Mine Action Center, a government-run body that coordinates demining, has warned people that the more than 2,100 landslides and mudslides caused by the flooding have altered fields of land mines. The 120,000 mines still left in the country used to be contained in 13,000 square feet of well-marked fields. Now they have spread away from the warning signs once indicating their locations. As much as 70 percent of the flooded territory could now be at risk of having land mines on it, according to the Mine Action Center.

"All flooded areas have become mine and unexploded ordnance suspected area," says Jasmin Porobic, the United Nations' point person in Bosnia for explosive ordnance destruction. Porobic is worried that people will inadvertently encounter minefields as they move around the rain-soaked country. "Roads are blocked by landslides. People are looking for alternative roads. They may end up in the minefields," he said.

The Mine Action Center has warned displaced people not to return home until the area is cleared by a demining officer -- no easy task. A mine has already exploded in the northern city of Brcko, near Bosnia's borders with Serbia and Croatia. And a minefield in the northwestern Bosnian town of Bosanska Krupa, near Croatia, has been uncovered -- evidence of how drastically the earth has shifted.

Some of the mines planted in Bosnia are plastic, meaning they can float. As a result, they could be carried by floodwaters, possibly as far as the Danube River. (On May 16, representatives from mine action centers in Croatia and Serbia will come to Bosnia to assess what mines might have crossed borders by now and how to find and secure them.) Porobic also warns that "a massive threat is unexploded ordnance and armaments that people disposed of in rivers, in fear of sanctions for illegal possession"; those too may have been moved in the flooding.

The biggest danger, however, are anti-personnel jumping mines, like the one that exploded late May 20 in Brcko. Designed to wound as many people as possible, these mines pop about 3 feet into the air when triggered, spraying shrapnel over 100 feet in all directions when they explode. "No amount of time, no amount of weather can destroy them," says Ahdin Orahovac, deputy director of the Mine Action Center. "These are our No. 1 killer mines."

Before the floods, Bosnia was on track to be free of land mines by 2019. Now it's unclear whether that's still possible. The Mine Action Center estimates that it will cost $412 million to clear the territory. "This is a real disaster from all aspects," Orahovac says.

Land mines aren't the only legacy of the war being complicated by the floods. Ten thousand people are still missing from the conflict, and the floods have made the difficult work of exhuming and identifying those who died more dangerous.

Witnesses are still coming forward to identify the sites of unmarked mass graves, but movements in the land mean that witness testimony about these sites may no longer be valid. "Dramatic landscape change can make it difficult for witnesses to pinpoint potential locations of graves," says Ian Hanson, deputy director of forensic science for archaeology and anthropology at the International Commission on Missing Persons, an intergovernmental organization based in Bosnia and charged with locating and identifying people who disappear during armed conflicts. Landslides could also affect access to search locations or complicate future excavations.

What's more, grave sites could be commingled with mines. "Surface remains and grave sites near mined locations may be affected by shifting minefields, hampering or preventing search and excavation," Hanson says. Potential grave sites will have to be cleared of mines before being excavated.

To be sure, these issues only account for some of the problems facing the flooded territory. Bosnians are now at risk of catching water-borne diseases -- like hepatitis and typhoid -- and food, medicine, and clean water are scarce in some areas. Although medicines and assistance are slowly arriving from all over the world, the floods will leave a mark long after the water has receded.

Bosnia's recovery is complicated because it is one of the most overgoverned countries in the world. The 1995 Dayton Accords put in place a bulky, fragmented ethnic power-sharing system among Bosniak Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. This structure is unprepared to respond to disasters like the current flooding; this is largely why it took six days for state-level authorities to meet about the floods. Currently, too, the Ministry of Security is leaderless -- the former minister was forced to step down after 17 government buildings were destroyed in mass anti-government protests in February -- and there is no national ministry of health to coordinate relief efforts, because it was not provided for in Dayton.

"The disaster coordination body over successive years has failed to meet, to take part in any training, nor [has it] shown any interest," says a former advisor for disaster management and strategic operations in Bosnia.

Bosnian citizens provided much of the assistance to one another in the first few days after the water rose up. "Citizens have mobilized not just because they are good people, but because they know that they don't have a state that can help them," says a senior Western diplomat with several years of experience in Bosnia. Other states have also stepped in with aid, including Slovenia, Montenegro, and Macedonia.

Yet in a sign of lingering ethnic tensions, some communities have complained that they have been overlooked in aid disbursement. In northwestern Bosnia, for instance, Mirsad Duratovic says his Bosniak Muslim returnee community in a majority Serb area was passed over for aid. Omerovic, too, says the people responsible for distributing humanitarian assistance in his region skipped his community, and he is worried that it will continue to be ignored.

Perhaps nothing could have prevented the catastrophic flooding from uprooting Bosnians who have long struggled to find postwar normalcy. But the country's unwieldy government, along with the literal resurfacing of the war's legacy, will almost certainly prolong that painful search.

Nedim Jahic contributed additional reporting from Pobudje, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Heads Won’t Roll

Obama’s talking tough about the VA scandal, so why isn’t he firing anyone?

 

President Obama attempted to calm the storm quickly enveloping his handling of a growing Veterans Affairs scandal, laying out a logical approach to getting to the bottom of what has gone wrong - seeking reviews, promising to hold individual staffers accountable, and ordering the department's head, the embattled Eric Shinseki, to give him an initial report next week. The one thing he didn't do was fire Shinseki or anyone else, and that no heads are rolling means he did little to quiet administration critics - and may have instead created new ones.

The president on Wednesday defended Shinseki, a retired four-star general who has led the VA since 2009, as a "great soldier" who would lead the review into the crisis pertaining to allegations of falsified records and "cooking the books," as Obama said, at a number of VA healthcare centers. Obama ordered Shinseki to return to him next week with preliminary results of the review of the problem and vowed punishment would come "once we know the facts."

But Obama dodged questions about whether Shinseki should resign or had offered to.

"Nobody cares about our veterans more than Ric Shinseki," Obama said in his first press conference devoted to the VA scandal -- which centers around allegations that 40 veterans died at a hospital in Phoenix while waiting for care - since it first exploded late last month.

"If you asked me how do I think Ric Shinseki has performed overall, he has put his heart and soul into this thing."

But Obama's dutiful respect for the investigatory process on the records scandal is seen by some critics as being overly focused on the issue at hand, and not the broader one that has frustrated critics for several years. And his remarks Wednesday did little to stop the calls for Shinseki to step down or for Obama himself to take ownership of a problem he made a feature of in his 2008 campaign.

Now the Democratic dam supporting Shinseki may be beginning to burst. Two Democratic lawmakers from Georgia, first John Barrow and then David Scott, called for Shinseki to resign after hearing Obama speak.

"While I don't think a change in leadership will immediately solve the serious problems that plague the VA, I do think it's time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process to ensure these issues never happen again," Barrow said in a statement.

Obama seems to have lost the room on veterans issues, even among some groups which have applauded some of the recent accomplishments by the VA. And for a White House already focused on the real prospect of losing Democratic control of the Senate in the upcoming mid-term elections, the scandal risks handing the GOP another political cudgel to use against the administration and its allies this fall.

"He did nothing to quell the growing nationwide VA controversy," Paul Rieckhoff, the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement issued shortly after Obama spoke. Rieckhoff, a respected leader in the veterans community who has worked closely with the administration in the past, called Obama's remarks a "tremendous disappointment," but stopped short of asking Shinseki to resign. "His long-overdue remarks gave outraged IAVA members no reason to believe anything will change at the VA anytime soon. The public trust with the VA and Secretary Shinseki is broken."

And there was more anger from more predictable quarters. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a frequent administration critic, said that Obama's remarks were "wholly insufficient" in addressing the broader problems at the VA, which he termed "fundamental and systemic."

McCain said in a statement, "We need answers, leadership and accountability, none of which we've seen from the Obama Administration to date."

No one ever thought that the problems at the VA - from reducing the backlog of veterans' disability claims to creating enough capacity there to handle the influx of millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, could be fixed overnight. But Shinseki, the recipient of two Purple Hearts during tours in Vietnam, was seen at the time as the perfect man for the job. His profile appealed to the Obama White House in 2009 as someone who would speak truth to power. The general is best known for telling a Congressional panel in the run-up to the Iraq War in early 2003 that the U.S. would need far more troops than what then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was planning to send.

But despite Shinseki's appealing narrative, his tenure at the VA has been spotty. While he's reduced the backlog of veteran claims as well as attempted to address veteran unemployment rates and homelessness, he has largely failed in the public terrain, passing on media appearances and generally working behind the scenes when most observers agree a higher public profile is called for.

That has led to a growing push for his resignation. Democrats on Capitol Hill have generally been mum on the issue and retired senior officers typically decline to get involved in what amounts to a politically-charged issue for the Obama White House.

Still, there are others who are quick to defend Shinseki for his handling of the records scandal. Former Senator Max Cleland, who himself ran the VA under then-President Jimmy Carter, wrote in Politico this week that "we veterans need facts, not a firing."

And Norton Schwartz, the retired four-star general and former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, said Shinseki is "no slouch" and will not be timid in making changes if the allegations about false records are found to be true. "My view knowing him as I do is that he is a man of high ethics and standards, and I can only imagine that he is just pained by this because he is also a man of obligation," Schwartz said in an interview.

Removing Shinseki might be the wrong thing to do at this point, he said. It could be hard for the White House to find a new VA chief in its second term, and changing horses midstream could do more damage than good.

"The dilemma here is, do you want a symbolic action or one that gives you the best opportunity for a remedy," he said. "I'm inclined to do the latter."

Obama appeared before reporters at the White House just as the records scandal widened. The number of VA medical facilities now under investigations over complaints that records were falsified or because of long waiting lists has more than doubled in the last week. The VA's Inspector General said yesterday that 26 facilities are being examined nationwide. And now there are reports indicating that at least two individuals at the heart of the problems in Phoenix were given bonuses at the same time they were under investigation by the Inspector General.

Also Wednesday, the House is expected to vote on legislation that would give Shinseki more authority to demand accountability from his hospital directors and other executives in an effort that was in motion before the scandal broke. But the administration - including Shinseki - doesn't like the legislation because of fears that it would make it hard to attract good employees to the VA. "What I want to be sure of is that we are not causing folks who might want to come work for VA to choose not to do so," Shinseki said after a hearing last week. "We need their talent and we need their expertise. If people stop coming to VA because they think we're heavy-handed on everything, then veterans in the long run are the ones who suffer the impact of that."

Supporters of the administration's approach to fixing the problems at the VA point to how large a bureaucracy it is and how hard it is to change. But Sen. Mark Begich, the Democrat from Alaska and a member of the Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a brief interview with Foreign Policy that pushing the VA's massive bureaucracy to address its broader problems is possible. In Alaska, it has produced results and provided better access to medical services by reducing backlogs and wait times, he said. To Begich, it's not so much whether firing Shinseki would send a strong signal about how seriously the administration is taking the issue. There's only one way to do that, he said.

"Fix the problem."

 

 

Win McNamee/Getty