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Guard ensures peace in Bosnia by collecting weapons
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Some of the weapons found by Minnesota National Guard members in Bosnia. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty returns to Minnesota Tuesday night after a brief trip to Bosnia. More than 1,000 Minnesota National Guard soldiers aren't quite as lucky. The Guard members are part of a multinational deployment assigned to enforce the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended Bosnia's bloody civil war. As part of their regular routine, Minnesota troops patrol the mountains along the former front lines, looking for illegal weapons and reassuring a doubtful population.

Sapna, Bosnia — Sgt. Joel Olson calls it a form of door-to-door salesmanship. The military refers to it as an Active Harvest. In straightforward terms, it's weapons-collecting. Working with a local interpreter, Olson and his men have arrived in Bosnia's northeastern village of Sapna to pay a visit to local residents.

"We basically are just going door-to-door and asking anybody do they have anything that they want to turn in, no questions asked. You know, weapons, ammunition, mines, hand grenades," says Olson.

"Two hand grenades," the resident of this home replies through an interpreter.

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Image On patrol

Two hand grenades -- and more. After rooting through a loft space, one local woman returns with the grenades and several rifle-propelled explosives, deadly remnants of this country's devastating civil war.

Working carefully, a team from B Company, 2nd Battallion, 136th Infantry -- headquartered in Crookston, Minnesota -- wraps duct tape around the explosives to prevent the saftey pins, sometimes rusty with age, from popping loose.

Bosnia fell into civil war in 1992 after the breakup of Yugoslavia. That country's disintegration unravelled a delicate balance between ethnic Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims -- known as "Bosniacs." Centuries of suspicion and distrust spilled over into vicious fighting that left 250,000 dead and created two million refugees.

As the weapons harvest moves from house to house, survivors often share their stories of the war. One Bosnian Muslim man says he was a commander of a local, poorly-equipped militia unit. Armed with hunting rifles, he boasts he captured five Serbian tanks as they fought for control of Sapna. But, speaking through a translator, he says his unit paid a hefty price.

"He said but 12 or 13 of his boys died on that day here, because they had an anti-aircraft gun up there on that hill and they killed from anti-aircraft gun," the man said.

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Image Taping a grenade

The fighting ended in 1995 after the intervention of NATO troops, and the signing of peace accords negotiated in Dayton, Ohio. The Minnesota deployment is an outgrowth of that process and the NATO peacekeeping presence that's been in the country ever since.

But eight years later, a mood of resignation hangs over many of the country's inhabitants. Izmet Mustafic told the weapon collectors that he was empty-handed. But he praised their efforts, predicted renewed bloodshed if the Americans withdraw from the country.

"He said probably war will start again if they move back. He said war wouldn't never stop here. But Americans showed up and they stopped the war."

The fear of renewed bloodshed is a driving force behind the weapons harvesting. Spc. David Olson of Thief River Falls says removing the tools of war is one way of ensuring hostilities don't resume when NATO scales back its troop commitments.

Already, the alliance is considering cutting its Stabilization Force from 12,000 to 7,000 soldiers. Olson says Bosnians are often eager to turn over their AK-47s, grenades, and ammunition.

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Image Homemade shotgun

"Just more weapons that they don't need really -- they feel -- so that a war doesn't start again. Or they don't have the resources. And there's no need for the civilians to have grenades," says Olson.

The weapons and ordnance are woven into the fabric of villages like Sapna. Many residents say they found rifles and explosives scattered across the countryside, and hid them to keep them from the hand of curious children. Other weapons were brought home by soldiers returning from the front lines when the war ended.

On a remote farm nestled into rugged mountains, the harvest team finds hundreds of machine gun rounds stashed in a barn. The boxes indicate some of the bullets were manufactured in 1952. But the appear to be in good condition. Spc. Richard Kilen of Fargo says the elderly owner of the ammunition lived right on the front lines between Muslim and Serbian troops.

"During the war ... he was in a bunker around this area here, and that's the ammunition they gave him to hold his position," says Kilen. He says the man, who is in his 70s, was in essence fighting in the war.

"You look out here, they were fighting for their homes and their land. It didn't matter how old you were," Kilen says.

Sgt. Olson, who's leading the search team, directs his armored Humvees further up the mountain before finding impassably muddy roads. On the way up, they stumble across front line trenches, dug by combatants years before. Although the wooded mountainside appears peaceful, Olson says the front lines are littered with land mines.

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Image Surrendering weapons

"We get up here, we kind of watch our step. And that was one of the first things I learned is, where the livestock are, where the sheep and the cattle are all walking, we figure it's pretty much safe for us. But anything -- I don't even want to think about it," says Olson.

There are an estimated one million to three million unexploded mines buried in Bosnia's soil. According to the U.S. State Department, more than 300 people have been killed by them since the war ended. And that isn't the only danger.

Bosnia was the scene of the worst European atrocities since the Nazi Holocaust. Many suspected war criminals remain at large. Scrawled across the front windshields of the Humvees are vehicle descriptions and license plate numbers for alleged war criminals -- just in case.

It's well after dark before the weapons harvest is called off for the day. The hills are punctuated by the occassional blast, as explosives disposal teams detonate on location any ordnance too delicate, fragile, or deadly to transport elsewhere.

The collection was a good one. Sgt. Olson's team -- along with the rest of the 25-member platoon -- has rounded up more than 70 grenades, almost two dozen anti-personnel land mines, two AK-47 assault rifles, and almost 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

Even eight years after the war ended, that haul is not uncommon. But there seems to be a genuine weariness among many Bosnians after the years of fighting. One man, who declined to give a name, says he has seen nothing good come from the war.

"He said I spent a lot of nights in the woods, like on the first lines. He said I lost my health," the translator relates. "And even if war start again and they call me, 'Hey, come here, we need you.' Not me. Not anymore."

It's a refreshing attitude and a comforting reassurance for the Minnesota soldiers on patrol. But just to be safe, they'll keep hunting for weapons all the same.

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