The life of Vera Bohle, who clears landmines from old battlefields, in Her tools: metal detector, prodder, shovel. Her work clothes: bulletproof vest, helmet outfitted with a protective visor. Her mission: clearing landmines. German Vera Bohle, who stands more than 1 meter 84 (more than six-feet tall) risks her life every day to help countries rebuild after wartime. Marco Visscher visited her in her Geneva, where she has temporarily settled. Bohle spoke plainly and eloquently about her work.
The first mine I found was treacherously hidden in the tall grass, invisible to passersby. The detector emits a clear signal from some distance away; the mine has a high metal content. I kneel on the ground and look more closely. It quickly becomes clear to me what lies before me: a fragmentation mine. The detonating mechanism is still active; the trip wire cannot be distinguished from the surrounding grass. My heart is pounding in my chest.
(Kosovo, Albania, 2000)
“Mine clearance is an exasperatingly slow process. The first week I was worn out, exhausted by nerves. When you work, all your muscles are tense because you need to concentrate so completely… During my first job, when at first I didn’t find anything for a long time, I noticed how impatient I was getting. I swung the detector more and more quickly over each bit of ground and pierced the soil more and more vigorously with my prodder. But in this work, routine is your worst enemy. The moment you imagine you’re safe or invulnerable, you start getting reckless. That can cost you your legs—or your life.
“The first mine I found triggered the release of a great deal of tension that had built up. I was finally able to do what I had come to do. I immediately started working on what I had been taught during the training sessions I had attended in Germany: cutting the trip wire, preparing the blast, attaching the explosive, filling sandbags to catch splinters flying through the air, etc. There wasn’t any room for fear. I considered all of it a welcome change.
“The range of experiences you can encounter in a minefield is disconcerting. Some mines are equipped with special trip wired to catch the de-miner. Some might be triggered by light, for example when you dig them up or unscrew the detonating mechanism, while others explode in the direction of the metal detector’s electromagnetic field. And there are small landmines that are designed “only” to tear off a soldier’s foot, so his fellow soldiers have a hard time getting him to safety and become demoralized. That is truly perverse combat logic. It is actually incomprehensible that there are people who come up with such things.”
At least 50 men move around the ammunition depot in a jumble. No one is concerned about our red markings and warning signs. Many are standing around smoking. The men roughly toss and fling the rockets into the truck. White phosphorous and fused high-explosive rockets are heaped together without using sandbags to cushion them from one another. The driver hits the first ditch in the road and is blown to smithereens.
(Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, 2002)
“When I arrived in Afghanistan I was shocked at all the accidents involving mines and ammunition. After I had been there for awhile, I was surprised there weren’t a lot more. It never ceases to amaze me that some people don’t appear to understand the danger—probably because the mines have been a part of their daily life for many years. Farmers kick them off their land, children play with them, a fisherman will use the explosive to catch fish, the village elder wants to collect and secretly sell them. And when these actions then lead to a deadly accident, it is apparently Allah’s will. In Afghanistan there were some moments when I thought: ‘Oh my god, I want to go back home. Just let them get blown to bits.’
“But then I remember that there is truly meaningful work to be done here. The problem with mines is that they render enormous areas useless and deadly. After the war large groups of people who fled, return home. As they try to rebuild their houses and villages, and cultivate their land, they continually—often for years on end—run into landmines that were planted everywhere, even in houses. They are literally living on a time bomb. Children in particular are often the victims, because they are simply playing outside and can’t judge the danger of the small grenades and ‘bomblets’, the mini bombs from the allied troops’ cluster bombs.
“An accident may mean instant death or unbearable pain and a lifelong handicap. Given the available medical care, there is rarely anything that can be done to help the victims. It is not only a personal drama, but an economic drama because productivity decreases when a family member becomes disabled and needy. The World Bank once calculated that every 10 kilometers of road that is cleared of mines in Afghanistan represents an economic benefit of $50,000 U.S.
“As soon as key main roads are cleared, food and medicine can be transported. I’ve very clearly seen the effects of mine clearance in Angola, where every parcel of de-mined land was immediately used to build houses or grow crops. It is safe to say that mines stand in the way of every type of development, while it is precisely these mined areas that so desperately need that development.”
I keep asking myself why I’m doing this work. The risk of an accident is high, the conditions in post-war countries are miserable, and opportunities to do something are limited. Every day I see ruins and misery. Women have little say, because here power comes from the barrel of a gun. What am I doing here? I kept asking myself that again and again until I reached the point of simply experiencing it: I do this work and that’s all there is to it. Very simple.
(Cologne, Germany, 2003)
“In 1993 when I worked for the German television network ZDF I went to Somalia to an area where there were fighting. I was shocked at the fact that everyone was openly carrying weapons, but I also saw the day-to-day life that simply went on in the midst of the conflict, which was hardly portrayed in the media. From my hotel in Mogadishu I looked out on the refugee camp where the dead were pulled out of their tents. I put together news reports as they lay dying in front of my eyes.
“Of course it’s important to disseminate those horrible images to the world, but I suddenly realized that I only observe what other people are doing instead of taking action. I wanted to help in a way that would remain relevant after I left. A little later I read a press release about an explosives school in Dresden where Bosnian refugees were being trained to become de-miners. I had found my niche.
“So why am I so fascinated and eager to get involved? I’ve thought long and hard about that. I suspect it’s nothing more than my attempt to play a positive, active role so I don’t feel like I’m simply a passive victim. I am also eager to represent Germany in the process of peace and reconstruction given that my country was the source of a great deal of destruction over the past century. My mother experienced the horrors of World War II as a child. She was evacuated and lost her home twice during the bombings, and her father never returned home from the war. But from the moment I felt drawn to this work, I had no desire to analyze my choice. Insight leads to nothing if it doesn’t affect your behavior.”
Clinton is conscious. His bandaged leg stump peeks out the side from under the blanket. I don’t know what to say, so I ask: “How are you?” To my relief he reacts calmly. “Not bad considering the circumstances. The doctors did excellent work. Now, the worst thing is the phantom pain. When it becomes unbearable I move the toes of my other foot.” I catch myself thinking that I want to remember this tip.
(Kosovo, Albania, 2000)
“You can only fight fear with optimism. I have a positive outlook on life. I simply assume that nothing will happen to me. And if it does, I’ll have to deal with it. That’s all you can do if fate deals you a heavy blow: face it with dignity. But I was actually taken aback when I saw my new accident insurance policy. It stated fairly explicitly what percentage of the insured amount I could claim if I went blind or lost my toes, feet, legs, fingers, hands and arms. But you can’t spend too much time thinking about all that or it will be impossible to work. The danger is rather that one is not scared enough. The mines are mostly invisible, all you can see is a beautiful landscape—not the best conditions to notice the deadly threat. That’s when you may become negligent or careless. That’s when most accidents happen.
“Don’t forget that my work also gives me a great deal of satisfaction. It feels great at the end of a day—even when you’ve only cleared a couple of square meters—to blow up the ammunition you’ve collected. That enormous blast takes away the day’s tension for awhile. Then I think, wow, a few more square meters are now mine-free; there are 50 fewer grenades on the earth and maybe 50 accidents have been prevented. At the same time I realize that these are 50 out of many billion. What we do is a drop in the bucket, but does this realization mean you shouldn’t do it?
“Clearing mines is, in fact, madness while new mines are being produced and laid. But try explaining that to a farmer in Cambodia who wants to cultivate his mine-ridden land so he can make a living. Or to a family in the former Yugoslavia that has been forced to leave their village and wants to return.
“I think now more than ever we are being forced to think about the way international politics is being shaped. It seems like waging war has become again an ordinary part of politics and no longer a last resort in an effort to solve a conflict. While one country has yet to be de-mined, more are being laid somewhere else. If you see how much constructive work remains to be done after 23 years of war in Afghanistan, you cannot imagine how the U.S. president would decide to attack yet another country.
“I wouldn’t go to Iraq at the moment, because I would still feel like I was part of a war that I don’t want to support. I’m not a blind pacifist and sometimes an armed conflict is the only way to put a stop to genocide or force a peaceable solution, but this did not seem to have been the motivation to attack Iraq. Later, I may go for humanitarian reasons, to be part of the peace process, of the reconstruction of a country after the war.”
I returned to Germany on Christmas day. We celebrated with the entire family in Heddinghausen, Sauerland at what used to be my grandparents’ farm. After a turbulent year it was great to be back with my family in a nice, familiar environment. But when we all went out for a walk in the woods, I kept catching myself scouring the ground with my eyes as if I was in a mine field.
(Heddinghausen, Germany, 2001)
“So far, unlike many of my old friends in Germany, I have been spared the fear of unemployment. There is plenty of work for me. And I’m sure that funding for mine clearance will continue to come from United Nations countries. The unfortunate thing is that this money obviously has to come from somewhere, from a budget that could just as well be spent on other development and reconstruction efforts that are equally valid, or in other poor countries that haven’t been involved in conflict and therefore haven’t drawn the world’s attention.
“The money for mine clearance should perhaps come from weapons manufacturers. In Western Europe the price of a refrigerator or a washing machine includes a removal and processing fee. That principle—whereby the cost of disposal is included in the price of the original product—could be applied to weapons and ammunition.
“Life in Germany and Switzerland—where I sometimes go to get a break—seems strange to me. I have a hard time adjusting. As I walk along the street I’m continually asking myself what it would be like if I had to get around with a prosthetic leg or had no hands. But if you asked me whether I would continue to do this work, I wouldn’t hesitate. This is my job and there are risks attached. And yet I won’t do this the rest of my life. After all, routine is deadly and I don’t want to tempt fate forever. I’ve often narrowly escaped an accident. I’ve been lucky. Luck is part of it. But you can’t count on it.”
Throughout our interview, I kept wondering why Vera Bohle risks her life every day? After all, she could have made a difference in the world by volunteering to build schools or drill wells. Why has she chosen to do something any of us could, but almost no one does? She certainly isn’t a saint, nor does she want to be one. And she’s not a reckless adventurer, in search of a thrill or a medal. She may be impulsive, but she’s not naïve. She’s very aware of the dangers of her work. Maybe she strikes me as so special because she refuses to thoroughly analyze her choice.
After we say good-bye I follow her directions to the taxi stand and look up at the street sign: Avenue Krieg, the War Street. Some people must be drawn to certain things for reasons even they don’t understand.
The indented passages were taken from the book Mein Leben als Minenräumerin (My Life As a De-miner), published this year in Germany by Krüger Verlag.