We repair lives

Milosav Maksimovic

portrait Milosac

Milosav Maksimovic

When it was bombed in 1999, I had been director of the Kopaonik National Park for 10 years. I am quite attached to that beautiful area, as I was born there and grew up there. It was so difficult to accept that the place was being bombed. While the bombing was happening, all of us National Park workers still had to perform our normal daily work and were required to be present at all times. Other than us, all of the other local agencies and companies had already left at the time of the bombing.

Kopaonik National Park is a really special place, as it is the largest tourist centre in Serbia, so it was very sad when one of the most beautiful hotels in Kopaonik National Park was bombed. There were six workers in the hotel at the time, it was a miracle they survived, especially considering the fact that six rockets were used and then the cluster bombs followed. That was my first encounter with cluster bombs. I recall the morning that we went to the hotel area and walked among the yellow bomblets as if it were a field of dandelions. I realize now how we weren’t at all cautious back then. We didn’t know the bomblets were so dangerous, we knew they were some sort of bombs, but we didn’t know how they were activated or what they did. I still remember the scene at the tennis courts which were close to the hotel. Those tennis courts were covered with unexploded cluster bombs. They were the very same tennis courts where Novak Djokovic, who is now a famous Serbian tennis player, first began playing tennis. When one of the best of the EOD experts was killed at that exact location, we found out how dangerous cluster bomblets really were. Although we were not experts, the local national park workers marked the contaminated areas with visible tape. I still keep a map where I marked the affected areas we found. Later, I found out that my map of dangerous areas was more accurate than those of the military and police. We were very worried about the local population because they have a local tradition of collecting forest foods, such as berries and mushrooms, it’s an old tradition, and as the mountain people are quite poor, they sell products from forest foods to supplement their small incomes. We encountered some absurd and dangerous situations, like the times locals collected cluster bomblets and put them in their collecting bags along with the forest foods, but fortunately nothing went wrong. It is difficult to comprehend just how lucky those people were, considering that professionals were killed and injured by the cluster bombs in Kopaonik. Part of the problem of the bomblets was that they were dropped and dispersed widely in April at a time when there was still a lot of snow in the Kopaonik National Park. When the snow melted, they just went deeper down, disappearing into the leaves and dirt, and a large number went into the forest, which is quite dense, where no de-miners could locate them. I was working when an explosion during a clearance caused a forest fire on the south-eastern slope of Mount Kopaonik. The fire eventually burned 70 hectares of trees before we, the national park staff, managed to put it out ourselves. It was burning in the direction of the tourist area and we were forced to act. We had already called the fire brigade, but they refused to come out because of the danger of other unexploded cluster bomblets. They also told us not to enter the area, but did so knowing we had to stop the fire. We worked for about 12 hours running around on the mountain fighting the fire during the night. When the sun came up in the morning and we could finally see our surroundings, we looked around and saw 26 bomblets on the surface. We realized then that the fire brigade had been right and we were very lucky to have made it through the night. Altogether, there have been eight separate clearance activities in Kopaonik since the bombing in 1999 (a total of at least 452 sub-munitions were found) but there are still some areas which have not been checked, or which were not cleared in accordance with the same clearance standards that have applied for the past two years. It all makes me very sad in a way. I love the Kopaonik area so much. I’m so attached to it, but I will never be able to look at it in the same way as before. I will always recall that feeling of insecurity the bomblets left behind. Due to my experiences I really appreciate the movement of the Oslo process and also the Ban Advocates project, through which I have learned some new things and come away with more ideas for what I can do to raise awareness about this issue.

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