On Edge in the “Devil’s Gardens” of Bosnia


“Look at the light.” We turned our heads toward the barren, snow-drifted mountains of southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. The sun shone from above the clouds and spread across the distant ridges, shimmered, flashed, then went out.

Looking at the light on the mountains, I saw a small peak that I thought would be fun to climb. And then I thought, “Are there landmines up there?” I didn’t want to seem paranoid, and I didn’t really know—these were my first few months living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I just knew that there were landmines in the area. Hiking is fine, Ana told me; just stay on the trail. The Devil’s Gardens, some places—seeds sown for future disintegration.

The stark mountain landscape of Herzegovina. Photo by Mateusz Jurecki. Click to enlarge.

The stark mountain landscape of Herzegovina. Photo by Mateusz Jurecki. Click to enlarge.

On Earth, we saw two men above us, on a different small peak. Though she said it was fine, and it probably was, with the light shining so brilliantly above us, we walked upwards on the ridge we knew to be safer, toward the two men, hesitantly. As we approached the men, Maro and I said, “Čao,” and smiled as we passed. While Dragana and Ana spoke to them in the local language, I said to Maro, only half-joking, “Those guys definitely killed people in the war, huh?” “Yeah,” he replied. They wore camouflage jackets.

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2008 map of Bosnia and Herzegovina showing landmine distribution. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

2008 map of Bosnia and Herzegovina showing landmine distribution. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Landmines in Bosnia and Herzegovina form an edge effect that is based less in ecology and more in industry and conflict. Now nearly twenty years after the Dayton Peace Accords, a 2008 map of mined landscapes from Wikipedia sketches the ghosted edges of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War’s front lines.1 Typically buried beneath as little as five centimeters of dirt, these waste products of war litter the hillsides of Mostar, the city where I live and teach. While prominent ruins and bullet-holed walls around the city enforce the injunction written around town—“Never Forget”—landmines in the countryside delineate the edges of war’s memory, the limits to moving on.

The magnitude of landmine pollution worldwide is grave. According to UNICEF, there are 110 million landmines in 64 countries; landmines kill about 800 people a month.2 Effectively, this means that every twenty minutes an antipersonnel mine maims or kills another victim worldwide.3 But global statistics are nearly always misleading. According to Landmine Monitor, 70-85% of annual deaths are civilians, belying the official term for landmines—“antipersonnel mines.” The casualties are disproportionately villagers and, to an even greater extent, children.4

The metaphors used to describe landmines—they are “planted” and “seeded”—suggest an ironic fecundity. The title of Lydia Monin and Andrew Gallimore’s seminal book, The Devil’s Gardens, realizes the troubled relationship between natural and denaturalized, industrial landscapes. For Rob Nixon, landmines were an early, paramount example in his conceptualization of “slow violence.” Rae McGrath, another astute observer of landmines, calls unexploded ordnance (a broader term that encompasses landmines) the “garbage of war,” the residual waste of post-conflict areas.

Hiking on Čabulja mountain in Bosnia. Photo by Andrew Mahlstedt. Click to enlarge.

Hiking on Čabulja mountain in Bosnia. Photo by Andrew Mahlstedt. Click to enlarge.

According to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, 1,674 people have been killed by landmines since 1996. Though European and Bosnian agencies have been working almost since the war ended to demine the country, it is painstakingly slow, and expensive: while landmines cost between $3 and $10 to purchase, it costs between $300 and $1000 to remove one. And last May’s devastating floods in the north, which destroyed more than 100,000 buildings and caused an estimated $2.7 billion in damage, dislodged and relocated untold numbers of these concealed weapons into some unknown future. The floods, which covered nearly three-quarters of the area still contaminated by mines, may have set back years of demining work.

* * *

In my second year in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I led a group of students to climb the highest peak in the country, Maglić, right on the border with Montenegro. Because Maglić is deep within Republika Srpska, it was never near a front in the Bosnian civil war, so the mountain is free of mine danger. Only when I caught myself wandering freely around the hillsides of Maglić did I realize how constrained and tense it can be to hike in an area known to be mined—how quietly fearful I was a year earlier, hiking with Maro, Dragana, and Ana.

In Bosnia, directions to hikes can say, “Park next to the UN storage container.” Photo by Andrew Mahlstedt. Click to enlarge.

Back in Mostar, the view from my office window, which was the line of sight for Croat gunmen during the war, looks out to a busy five-corner intersection, the central traffic junction in the city. Though the school was rebuilt in the last decade, on all other corners stand the palimpsests of conflict, buildings in such ruin that trees provide the only canopy from winter rain. The cragged lines of what used to be rooftops now trace the nearby mountain ridges. So many human landscapes in Bosnia evidence the lasting divides in the country, but in these spaces we can pass by the ruins with the relative calm of humdrum life. Yet in the mountains—striking, dizzying, astonishing mountains—signs warn of covert earthen rupture, nearly 20 years after the war, and we still walk slightly on edge.

Featured image: Sunlight bursts through winter clouds in Bosnia. Photo by Andrew Mahlstedt.

Andrew Mahlstedt is currently the Deputy Head at United World College (UWC) Mostar. He completed his PhD in English at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012, focusing on the ethics of representing the marginalized poor in the recent era of globalization. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Middlebury College, and an M.A. from Stanford University. In addition to UWC Mostar, he has taught at the UWC in India, UW-Madison, and Middlebury College. Contact

  1. The Dayton Peace Accords, signed on December 14, 1995, at Dayton Air Force Base, brought to an end the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war began after the fall of Yugoslavia, when the three major ethnic groups (Bosniak Muslims, Croat Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Serbs) in the region fought for political control in this most ethnically diverse of all the Yugoslav republics. 

  2. According to UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 1996http://www.unicef.org/sowc96/contents.htm?482,238

  3. Human Rights Watch Arms Project, “Exposing the Source: U.S. Companies and the Production of Antipersonnel Mines,” April 1997, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/general2974.pdf

  4. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2011), 226. 

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