PROM 1 - Waiting in the Ground for the Deminers in Kosovo
Al J. Venter
Issue 4.1 | February 2000 | Information in this issue may be outdated. Click here to link to the most recent issue.
is a deadly and menacing anti-personnel mine, even as it lies partly on its
side. This mine has killed or injured more clearance personnel in the Balkans
than all other Yugoslav mines combined.
the worst in bounding anti-personnel mines and not much bigger than
a beer can, is a vicious weapon whose shrapnel can penetrate almost
any body armor. It cuts through the average Kevlar helmet like cardboard,
as it does often enough for those who try to clear these deadly little
bombs, and Kosovo is full of them.
many mine clearing specialists working in the Balkans who don't have
a favorite story about the PROM-1. When one of the teams working there
is lucky enough to spot one of these bombs before it finds them (and
sometimes there are several, usually laid in clusters) the word is whispered
down the line. Most of those on the ground will wait to see what action
is taken. Obviously, all mines must be cleared, and that's official.
How this is done is what focuses the mind; those working with the stuff
know that the PROM-1 is a killer.
there were a lot of casualties among those trying to clear PROM-1s. In the
words of one American specialist, "They're a bitch to disarm. We just
like to blow 'em where we find 'em." PROM-1s are not so easy to spot,
especially when the ground is thick with grass and shrubs, as it is in the
summer in Kosovo. The business part that protrudes above the ground isn't
much bigger than a matchbox.
In recent years,
during the course of a succession of Balkan wars, it quickly became apparent
that most PROM-1s were so unstable that the only way to handle them was to
destroy the mines on site. Anything else was invariably a disaster. You only
need to brush against any one of the device's tiny prongs and it's over. A
bounding mine hurls the bomb a couple of feet into the air and kills everything
Col. Richard Todd, a 23-year American Special Forces veteran with experience
in mines and ordnance dating back to Vietnam, you have about a 60 percent
chance of being killed if you are within 50 yards of the explosion. "It
happens so fast," he said, "that most aren't even aware of what
happened." Todd has been working with mines in the Balkans for the past
five years and he explained why the PROM-1 is deadly: "Unlike the `popular'
Yugoslav PMA-2, which is the blast mine that you find everywhere in Bosnia,
Croatia and Kosovo, the PROM-1 is a group fragmentation mine. It was designed
around the original German `S' mine which caused such terrible damage in WWII
and which the Allies notoriously dubbed `Bouncing Betty.' That's language
carried over from the Vietnam era; it's in little use today among mine clearing
specialists," he declared.
has a devastating effect when it blows. It is a bit like a proximity fuse
on a mortar or artillery shell exploding a few feet above the ground,"
Todd suggested. "And because this mine can be laid with multiple trip
wires, it has become the obvious weapon of choice among the Serbs. They like
it because just one PROM-1 can take out a group of people, or even a squad
of soldiers on patrol," he continued. "In recent years," said
Todd, "it was increasingly deployed in urban areas. They've been laying
them in Kosovo as if they've a license to do so," he said.
Small as it is,
the PROM-1, a bottle shaped, olive green, cast-steel mine, is a complex device.
Designated in the textbooks as a "buried, tripwire-activated bounding
anti-personnel fragmentation mine," it weighs a little over six pounds.
Its single pound of explosives is a combination of Trotyl and RDX in about
equal proportions. The fuse contains an integral percussion cap "which
is what makes it so damned unstable," said one authority. Most of the
people who have tried to disarm it have come short fiddling with the business
There is controversy
about its plastic coated tripwire. Some say dogs can detect it and others
reckon they can't. Usually the same color as the terrain, tripwires are difficult
to spot under the best conditions and in Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army
has had major problems because of the foliage. A proportion of the casualties
taken by the guerrilla group before the Allies went in was from mines, some
PMA-2s but also PROM-1s.
The problem is
that once tripped, it is impossible to differentiate between the small blast
that lifts the bomb out of the ground and the full effect of the explosion,
which is devastating. Someone in Angola who once had an armored vehicle, tripped
one in front of him said that both blasts were simultaneous. Any hope of evasive
action, consequently, is impossible. More uncommon versions of the same mine
such as the PROM-1P and PROM-2 tend to bound a little higher, but they have
the same devastating effect.
mean weapon, and not to be trifled with," Todd warned. He heads the
U.N. Mine Action Team inZagreb and has files full of PROM-1 incidents,
a lot of which make for some pretty grim reading. Despite multiple warnings,
casualties with PROM-1s do happen. A crack international mine clearing
team working under U.N. auspices in Croatia had one of its members killed
earlier this year. Operating with dogs in an area reduction program, the
operator couldn't have spotted the one that either he or the pooch tripped.
Two shards of shrapnel penetrated his brain in the explosion that followed
and he was killed instantly. Miraculously his dog, working only yards
away, was untouched.
One Big Mine Field
Almost all the
countries that once comprised the old Yugoslavia and that have seen military
action in recent years have problems with mines. In parts of Bosnia, it is
still dangerous to venture off the road. The same holds for Croatia. A succession
of mine fields, some Serbian, the others laid by the Croat Army, stretch down
almost the entire length of the country in a half-moon pattern that extends
over 500 miles. The mine fields run from Vukovar in the north-east to the
Montenegro border. Only the narrow coastal corridor between Sibenik and Sipa
While there are
mine fields in dozens of other countries all over the world, those in the
Balkans have suddenly acquired a notoriety of their own. What the Serbs did
with mines in Croatia and Bosnia, they have repeated in Kosovo. It is also
no secret that Croatian minefields have become the subjects of close study
by a variety of NATO security and intelligence organizations.
At Garage Sales
In the Balkans,
the Serbs have been making mines for decades, and their stuff is good. By
the early 90s, Yugoslavia was earning $2 billion a year from its weapons sales,
mostly from Third World buyers. Even today, it is easy to buy any number of
Yugoslav mines in East European arms bazaars.
Like it or not,
some mines, like the PROM-1 and the anti-tank TMRP-6 (and TMRP-7) as well
as the full range of TMA mines, are as good as anything produced in the West.
U.N. mine clearing teams are encountering Yugoslav mines in just about every
international trouble spot. In places like Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan,
Ethiopia and Mozambique you find Yugoslav landmines, often in great quantity.
Now that almost
every NATO country is helping in Kosovo, landmines are arguably the single
most serious obstacles. As someone once said of mines, "They are cheap,
need no food, remain silent and inactive (and potent) for years. They also
have the ability to do great damage." U.N. mine clearing teams presently
working under U.N. or World Bank auspices in Bosnia and Croatia have made
a number of observations about Balkan mine fields. Clearing them often involves
complex and sometimes frightening problems and some of those doing the work
are getting hurt.
There have been
fatalities. "There is simply no magic bullet for clearing landmines,"
Todd says. "In order to do the job effectively, you need to draw from
a `toolbox' of three fundamental disciplines. These are human and mechanical
deminers, as well as dogs trained to find them. None of these assets on its
own can do the job properly. You
need one to check the efficiency of the other."
Nor are these
disciplines free or cheap. "It is expensive to run and maintain a demining
operation. The specialists doing the job are expensive and so is the insurance
to cover them in case of accident. Similarly, you constantly need to train
more people to do the job properly. That, too, costs money," Todd stated.
There are a number
of countries clearing mines in the Balkans, all of them involved in seven-figure
dollar contracts, which are usually linked to foreign aid. In Croatia, the
Russians were followed by Italy, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, the United
States (RONCO) and Mechem of South Africa. There are also at least 12 Croatian
firms. This includes Mungos, said to be one of the largest companies in the
world specializing in this sort of work.
contracts in Angola and Mozambique, operates with a project leader plus seven:
two team leaders, two dog handles, a driver/mechanic and a couple of demolition
specialists. Johan van Zyl runs the show. As he explained, all of his men
have good Special Forces military experience and all are trained medics in
trauma medicine. "There have been times when these attributes have been
handy," he said.
The men work
seven days a week until the contract, in this case 60 days, is complete. To
save money, the men live rough, usually starting the day at six and working
through to seven or eight at night. They eat before they start and the next
meal is usually when they finish for the day. Time lost to rain is made up
under contract with this foreign mine clearing team are 40 Croat deminers
headed by four team leaders. Additional crews (according to Croatian law)
includes two each of doctors, medics, drivers, dog handlers and ambulances,
plus an interpreter, all of whom must be paid for by the contract company.
Other companies are similarly bound by red tape, which most foreign contractors
think is a legacy of the old political system. It doesn't take any observer
long to see that the majority of ancillary personnel are superfluous and
therefore a waste of money.
clearing specialists, with whom I spoke, said that while the quality of Croatian
mine clearing was good, their rate of clearance was mediocre; again, reflecting
residual communist ways. Almost all the expatriates ventured that if they
had been able to bring their own people into the country to do the work, they
would have been able to cut much of the crap. Some said that the job would
have been completed in half the time.
There are several
categories of mine clearing in the Balkans. The first is humanitarian. Consequently,
most effort is invested into commercial projects with economic goals such
as the one around Gospic, about 100 miles south of Zagreb. This involves clearing
anti-tank (AT) and anti-personnel (AP) mines around the only rail link running
from the capital to the southern coastal cities of Split and Dubrovnik.
The problem here
was that contractually, clearance only extended to 15 meters on either side
of the line, which meant that mine fields fringing the line, some of them
many acres, remain uncleared because there was no money. The World Bank gave
Zagreb a $7million loan for clearing the bombs. Because the money eventually
has to be paid back, the Croats aren't falling over themselves to get the
job done. While the mine clearing teams have a handle on the job, the civilians
who live and work in these areas don't. Their casualties don't even make the
papers any more.
Littered by Bones
A few days before
I arrived in Gospic, a local was killed after tripping a PROM-1 within a hundred
yards of the rail station. He had been walking home from work. A huge hole
gouged from the turf was still visible while mine clearers worked around the
on some isolated country roads around Gospic, we were told that another problem
facing mine clearing teams was a distinct lack of patience among local residents
to get the job done. Pointing to fresh tractor tracks on both sides of the
road, my guide said, "Quite often the farmers don't even wait for us
to complete the job. They just ride around and occasionally they'll trip a
TMRP-6 which can reduce a three-ton truck to scrap in an instant."
Or their animals
will do it for them. The Gospic countryside is littered with the bones of
dead cattle and horses. Apparently it is the same in Kosovo where the locals
were anxious to get going again before winter set in.
One of the more
difficult problems in the central Balkans is coping with heavy bush. After
five years of waiting for the mines to be cleared, some parts of what had
once been farmland have become almost forested. Before any clearance work
can be done, small trees have to be removed to allow the teams to bring in
In some places
the undergrowth was so thick it had become impossible to work there. It was
also dangerous. Everybody involved in this business knows that mines laid
a decade ago don't become inactive with time. Van Zyl was considering hiring
a Caterpillar, though he wasn't sure what the authorities would say or the
owners of the machine.
One of the observations
during our visit was that because it lies on a main road heading towards the
Dalmatian Coast on the Adriatic Sea, the town of Gospic is often crowded with
German and Scandinavian cars heading south for summer. Very few of them are
aware that there are mines in the surrounding countryside, and the reason
is simple: Zagreb does not allow the authorities to put out any warning signs.
said a U.N. official, most people passing through the country and perhaps
picnicking en route, have no idea that they might have stopped on the edge
of a mine field. "Sometimes I see cars parked with children playing in
nearby fields. It's only a question of time before there is a disaster,''
Most of the
minefields,both Serbian and Croatian, are mapped. Todd made the point that
just about every day he received calls from former JNA soldiers offering him
information about old mine fields. "There is a price, of course,"
he continued. "Some want money, others try to use it as leverage to return
to their old homes."
It was notable,
travelling about Croatia, that every third or fourth house or farm that we
passed had been broken down, burnt or trashed. All had formerly belonged to
a very large Serbian community that lived there before the war. Most of the
families had been there for centuries. Like Albanian Kosovars, almost all
of them had become refugees.
the Mechem operation around Gospic, the company finished its contract and
in the two month time frame, lifted about 60 mines of which about two-third
were anti-personnel. There were no casualties in that time. That contract,
though small by international mine clearing standards, was worth $1.3million.
Mechem has successfully tendered for two more mine-clearing projects, one
in the northeast near the Hungarian border which van Zyl reckons is, "A
bastard of a job because of all the booby traps," and another close to
the Dalmatian coast, west of Gospic.
J. Venter went into the Balkans twice during the war: once
with the U.S. Air Force in a Joint-STARS operation and again into old Serbian
mine fields where he looked at the threat from up close.
Reprinted with permission from Soldier of Fortune