Because It’s Mined, I Walk The Line

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On solid ground—A railway bridge near Osijek.

Ever had the feeling that what you did years ago was more interesting than what you do now?

I recently unearthed an old film from 1996 which shows a day at the office: on that day, my office was a disused and heavily mined railway line on the former front lines of the Balkan wars.

The Dayton Agreement of 21 November 1995 brought an end to the war in Bosnia. As a prelude to Dayton, another agreement was signed that ended the less well known war in Croatia. The agreement, known as the Erdut Agreement, was signed on 12 November and set the scene for the reintegration of the Serb-held region of Eastern Slavonia, a sliver of land on the western side of the Danube running along the border between Croatia and Serbia, back under Croatian government authority.

A two year transition period (1996 to 1998) was envisaged, during which Eastern Slavonia would be run by a UN transitional administration in which I worked. One of the tasks of the UN administration was to re-establish public services in the region including electricity, telephone and transport services.

Predictably, the war had left the public services in a shambles: the railways, vital lifelines for the Eastern Slavonian towns, had been out of action since the beginning of the war in Croatia in 1991 and their rehabilitation was key for the restoration of normal life. Railways were an important element in the local economy as they criss-crossed the flat and fertile plains of Eastern Slavonia running north to Hungary, east to Serbia, south to Bosnia and west to Croatia from two key river ports—Vukovar and Osijek.

And so, in August 1996, as part of a UN team working to re-establish rail links, I found myself spending the day crossing the former front lines of the war in Croatia, checking the condition of the railway lines running between Osijek and the Hungarian border.

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The Hungarian border. The flat lands of Eastern Slavonia are part of the Pannonian plain, a pre-historic sea bed.

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Soldiers in the mist.

The trip was undertaken with Belgian and Pakistani troops from the UN, plus de-mining specialists from the Croatian and Serb sides. My report from the time notes: “The sides of the railway line are still mined from the Hungarian border to the south for a distance of 1600m—we counted six trip wires within 100m of the border.”

As the railway lines crossed the front lines, parts of the track had been torn up; the embankments used for fortifications and land mines and booby traps laid.

Troops from Pakistan provide security as we examine a damaged stretch of railway line.

Belgian soldiers break for a cigarette near the Hungarian border

Both sides had lain mines along their respective front lines. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were used with many anti-personnel mines being laid above the surface and triggered by trip wires which were gossamer-thin.

The wires were difficult to see and could be stretched across a path at heights ranging from ankle height to head height. During the reconnaissance, we were very focused on identifying the trip wires that might be lain across the railway line or paths nearby.

00200008 (2)As can be seen, we moved in widely separated groups to ensure that if a mine was encountered, not everyone would be at risk.

Looking at the photos and re-reading my notes, those days seem so much more interesting than where I sit now in an office trying not to spill coffee on my papers. The only bombs I have to dodge now are in my inbox.

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Paper pushing in the field – examining mine field records.

Shot with Nikon FM2 and Ilford XP2 film.

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