In the fall of 2001, Silvija Bogdany answered a Norwegian People’s Aid advertisement for mine-clearance personnel of both sexes. After six weeks of intense training, Bogdany became the youngest deminer in Croatia and began working in the field alongside highly experienced male deminers. In the spring of 2003, she was promoted to Team Leader. Though she only has about four years of experience, her former Project Manager, Damir Jakšić, places her in the category of “highly experienced deminers.” Bogdany is now both the Technical Advisor to and Supervisor of the DCA Mine Action Program Sudan, where she trains demining staff. Capacity building is one objective of the team, and the main goal is to help Sudanese deminers become less reliant on international supervision.
Nevertheless, Bogdany likes to think of herself as “an ordinary girl.” She likes to ride her motorcycle in her spare time; her favorite movie is Forrest Gump and her dream is to have two dogs, two horses and a large fish aquarium.
Poisonous snakes are some of the less ominous dangers Bogdany encounters in the field. Below the surface of the ground lies a more deadly threat: landmines. “There were situations when I was a deminer that I can thank only God for being alive and in one piece,” she says. Such an incident occurred while she was working in Slavonia. “I was in a fight with my boyfriend, very unbalanced and stupid. I know that now. I thought that my personal problems wouldn’t interfere with my work. I was wrong.”
At the end of the work period, Bogdany’s Team Leader told her that she had to finish her section before they went home. Frustrated with her boyfriend and angry with her team leader, she finished clearing her section of the minefield. “The next day I went over the area I cleared with a metal detector and found my footprint in the dirt that covered an AP [anti-personnel] mine.”
All photos courtesy of Silvija Bogdany
“That day changed my life,” says Bogdany. “I have thought about that event many times and every time the same conclusion comes to my mind: ‘Yes, I believe that God watches over me.’”
Not many deminers who have had a similar experience have gone back to work the next day. Bogdany returned to work. “I don’t know where I got the strength to do that!” she exclaims.
She returned to work as if nothing happened, but Bogdany broke up with her boyfriend. “I couldn’t allow myself to make the same mistake again.” Her relationship with her Team Leader changed. “I used to admire him, but now I realized that he didn’t care for his team. He cared for how many square meters we cleared.” Bogdany says that, as a result of the experience, she promised herself that if she ever became a team leader, people and their safety would come first and not the daily result. “Naturally, daily achievements count, and that is how I see a good team leader–managing to have high productivity but not jeopardizing safety.”
The Team Leader
As a Team Leader, a day’s work for Bogdany might involve guiding two demining machines and an eight-person demining team at the same time. She says this is not too difficult if both the team and the machines are located in the same place or near one another. However, deminers must be at least 200 meters (656 feet) away from each of the machines. “My team [is often] on one side of the field and the machines, naturally, were all the way on the other side of the field,” she explains. “In short, I [do] a lot of walking around like some lost fly, and I was dressed in full equipment.”
The work not only mentally and physically challenges Bogdany, but it also affects her emotionally. After two Croatian deminers were killed and one was badly injured, she says, “My friends try to convince me that this comes with [the] work and I know that, but somehow I am not satisfied with that answer. I think that team leaders and supervisors are mainly responsible for most accidents.”
She thinks a Team Leader’s most important job is taking care of his or her team and safety on the site. “It is a really big responsibility and a person must recognize the situation and not push it. You must know every person, his way of thinking and his limits. It is hard to work with people, but the reward is big,” Bogdany says.
“It is difficult to continue with work after every landmine incident. I think that discussing it with the team is better than not talking about it at all. What we all can and have to do is learn something from those incidents and try not to bring our colleagues and ourselves into a similar situation,” she explains. “I’ve noticed that most accidents happen at the end of the working period. I think that concentration falls and everybody is nervous and not thinking right.”
On Bogdany’s one-year anniversary of being a team leader she said, “My biggest reward is that I can go to sleep every evening knowing that my team is okay.”
Thinking about the Future
“My involvement in mine action has developed much quicker and deeper than I thought it would,” says Bogdany. “I became a Team Leader in just 15 months. I’ve met and become friends with many people who are also involved in mine action. I have gained more confidence in myself.” Looking to the future, she says, “If God gives me health and luck, I will be involved in demining until my pension. I just hope that everything will turn out right.”
Bogdany remembers a long talk she had with her sister, Emilija, who retired from demining when she got married. “She told me one thing and I think about it every now and then. She told me that it was when she quit demining that she realized for the first time how dangerous the job is. She is more concerned for me now than she was for herself when she was a deminer. Maybe it is better for us not to think about that.”
An Interview with Silvija Bogdany
Where do you see mine action in the next 10 to 20 years, and where do you fit into that vision?
One thing is certain—there will always be minefields and mine action in the world because there will always be war somewhere on the earth. Even if war stops, demining will continue for many years.
I think that in 10 to 20 years, demining will still be demining as it is now, only I would like to see more sophisticated equipment, which will help deminers in their work.
Since I prefer fieldwork to office work, I see myself somewhere in a Third-World country working for an NGO [nongovernmental organization] as a supervisor, perhaps as a demining instructor. I also see myself becoming more involved in mine-risk education.
If money and other obstacles were no object, how would you go about dealing with the world’s mine problem?
If money were no object, hypothetically speaking, we wouldn’t have a problem with landmines because war would be an enigma to people. Almost every war begins because of money and material possessions. Only one war started where money wasn’t involved—the Trojan War.
What do you feel are areas in the demining world that can be improved?
I would invest more money in research and in new innovations that would make demining easier with less risk for deminers, but at the same time improve work quality. I would invest money in new, more sophisticated equipment and in quality training and education for deminers.
Quality assurance and quality control are of big importance to demining. With more personnel qualified to conduct monitoring of demining organizations before and during the clearance process and to conduct final inspection of cleared land prior to its formal release, it would be ensured that all clearance processes are conducted in accordance with International Mine Action Standards and standard operating procedures. This way it would be ensured that the job was done properly and that it was not just a money chase. Perfect examples are commercial companies. I have seen where clearance was not done properly because they were tending to finish one project as quickly as possible so that they can collect money and move on to another project, and after that one, to another and so on. I think that in the money race, demining quality diminishes. Plus, people who are doing the work are under unnecessary pressure.
All in all it comes down to good management and organization, trying to increase productivity but not lowering the safety standards.
Jennette Townsend worked as an Editorial Assistant for the Mine Action Information Center and Journal of Mine Action while pursing a master’s degree in technical communication at James Madison University.
Journal of Mine Action
Mine Action Information Center
DCA Mine Action Program Sudan
Amarat Street 9, Block 10
Khartoum / Sudan
Tel: +882 165 420 3064
NPA Mine Action Program Croatia
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23420 Benkovac / Croatia
Tel: +385 23 684 024
Fax: +385 23 682 201