Category Archives: Landmines

One summer’s day

One late summer’s day, about 13 years ago, my husband was working with his brother and father in their carpentry workshop in Burrel when they heard a massive explosion that shook the building. Across the valley the usual view they had of their farm amongst the trees was obscured by an enormous plume of smoke (my husband described it like the mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion).

They ran into the centre of town to find out what was going on but it wasn’t until many days later that they learnt the full story – that a man living on the land of a former military base at the mouth of the valley had been using a metal grinder, the sparks from which hit the weapons storage area igniting a fire, creating a massive explosion and sending missiles firing across the valley and the flat land.

People ran for their lives, sheltering wherever they could. At the farm the three families, and neighbours, gathered in two rooms that were somewhat protected by concrete roofs.

Leaving his brother in town, my husband went with his father and found a furgon (van) driver who was heading out past the road to the farm to check on his own family. They sped off, persuading the army officers now blocking the road to let them past. The smoke was making it difficult to see the road and there were still missiles firing off in all directions.

The walk from the main road to the farm was desolate – there was absolutely no one outside. My husband and his father were fully expecting to find their family dead. But when they made it to the farm a quick head count confirmed all were safe and sound. At midnight they ventured out to survey the damage to the houses closest to the weapons depot.

Over the next few days the area was swarming with police and army personnel searching the area for damage and bodies. It was nine days after the weapons depot exploded that a trail of ants led searchers to dig down through the ruins of the house on the military base and they found the man with his grinder buried deep under the rubble and burnt almost beyond recognition.

Walking the land was dangerous in the days and months following as there was unexploded ordnance covering the whole area. Searches and clean ups were tentatively carried out – before taking every footstep the ground was closely examined.

Much of the unexploded ordnance was cleared. But not all. It was many months later when my husband’s young cousins took their cows out to graze. And that’s where my other tale begins.

 

 

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The extra leg

legs2

My dear readers, we have the extra leg! In fact, we got the extra leg a few days ago and it has been tried and tested and approved of. It took five trips up to the prosthetics centre at Kukes hospital over two months for the measuring, casting, and testing of the leg.

Full credit to the committed team at Kukes. They have scarce resources and many people who need their skills and talents. One prosthetic technician to look after the 800 survivors of landmines and UXOs in Albania is hardly adequate.

Next up: arms. This is going to be the big challenge!

You can find out more here:

Why I’m talking about arms and legs

The Albanian Government risks failing to meet its international obligations regarding the care of survivors of landmines and UXOs

I’ve been aware of the story of my husband’s cousins for a few years now. It was one of numerous stories he shared with me about his previous life in Albania. Along with stories of horrific car crashes, munitions depots exploding, and cows being struck dead by lightning.

It wasn’t until I moved to Albania and met the cousins in question – two brothers in their 20s – that the full extent of the horrific accident and its life changing consequences really hit me.

Twelve years ago at the family farm, the brothers took their cows up on the hill to graze. In this paddock was unexploded ordnance (UXO). It had landed there after the munitions depot in the valley below exploded (due to poor maintenance by the Albanian army) firing munitions all over the area. The brothers lost limbs. One completely lost his sight. They both nearly lost their lives.

The subsequent years were spent in expensive medical treatment – none of which was funded by the Albanian government, who, in my opinion, are ultimately responsible for the UXO that devastated the brothers’ lives, and the lives of their family. The family had to pay for the urgent care needed immediately after the accident. International charities subsequently funded prosthetic limbs and operations attempting to restore their sight.

And then the brothers and their family were left to get on with life as best they could.

The Albanian government gave them NOTHING in support, or compensation. NOTHING. To this day, they get only the minimum benefits any person with a disability is entitled to in Albania. And trust me, it is minimal.

I met the brothers when I moved to Tirana and I was struck by three things: 1) how intelligent, interesting and lovely they both were; 2) how utterly inadequate their prostheses were; and 3) how much potential was being lost by not giving them both all the opportunities in the world to enable them to live full and complete lives.

If this accident had happened in the UK their story would be completely different. They would both be fully independent men capable of working and caring for themselves.

So I started to ask around to find out if anything could be done to help them.

I eventually tracked down the organisation to speak to. The Albanian Mine Action Executive, was set up to clear remaining landmines and UXO and provide support for the more than 800 survivors in Albania.

We met with a representative, only to be told that for no clear reason, the Albanian government stopped funding this organisation at the end of 2013. It seems there is no money being set aside for the ongoing care and rehabilitation of survivors. And apparently no funding is given to the only prosthesis centre in Albania set up to serve survivors who lost limbs.

We were told that international organisations are now reluctant to fund this work in Albania because the level of corruption is such that they cannot guarantee the money will be used as it should be.

In the meantime, one brother is stuck with a prosthetic leg that no longer fits him, causing him pain when he walks and slowly damaging his spine. The mechanics in the leg have failed so it cannot sense a change in his movements and so won’t bend when he wants to sit down. The other brother has two prosthetic arms that hang limply at his side. He cannot feed himself or do any of the basic tasks we all undertake on a daily basis to care for ourselves.

Prosthetic limbs, I’ve been told, require maintenance every two years – especially important when the survivor is young and still growing. For these young men it’s been 10 years.

We’ve now been told we can get a new leg. This process has started although it is some way from being successfully concluded. But because the technology is not available in Albania to provide prosthetic arms we have been told that it is not possible to get new arms – even though the technology is available in many other countries in Europe. This is not an acceptable reason to leave a young man entirely dependent on others for his basic needs.

By not providing adequate, ongoing care and rehabilitation to survivors of landmines and UXOs the Albanian government risks failing to meet its obligations as a signatory of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.

And that is why I am talking about arms and legs.

“Each State Party with respect to cluster munition victims in areas under its jurisdiction or control shall, in accordance with applicable international humanitarian and human rights law, adequately provide age- and gender-sensitive assistance, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, as well as provide for their social and economic inclusion.”

Article 5, Convention on Cluster Munitions

You can find out more here:

You can raise this issue with the Albanian government by tweeting and asking these people to reinstate funding for the organisations supporting survivors of landmines:

… and you can raise awareness by sharing this blog post. Thank you.