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Excavation works at Sarajevo airport

By Cpl. Nicolas Marut
First published in
SFOR Informer #88, May 24, 2000

Sarajevo - Little by little, signs of the war are fading away in Bosnia and Hercegovina; among them, the berms of the international Sarajevo airport. These gigantic mounds of earth had been erected in the middle of the conflict by the French UN Contingent, in order to protect the sensitive facilities of the airport: planes, ammunition deposits, radar facilities, fuel reserves, etc. But times have changed, as shown by a detachment of the French 25th Air Engineers Regiment, supported by a team of Spanish sappers from Mostar, which have worked since April to remove the berms.

"Eventually, the airport will be handed back to civilians," explain 1Lt. Cédric Fayeaux, detachment commander. "It must be as it was before the war."
But before that is accomplished, there is a lot of work to be done to include the movement of three berms worth of dirt, totally 60,000 cubic metres. To top it off, there are several risks associated with such a task.

"The first berms don't pose a problem, but as we move northward we've found more and more ammunition and mines in the area," said Fayaux. "The worst part is the north berms which are closest to what was once the "front line" of fighting and is more than likely full of unexploded ordinance."

To clear the area of ordinance are 13 Spanish sappers and Explosive Ordinance Disposal specialists from the U.S. Air Force. The personnel are using armoured vehicles to conduct a visual inspection of the area and determine if the zones contain mines or ammunition. Since beginning the work, three mines, two grenades and various munitions have been discovered and neutralised on-site.

"We can't use metal detectors because there's too much junk in the berms," explained WO1 Bernard Gailhard, with the EOD team. "We have to watch very carefully and the work must be very slow."
While the numerous engineer vehicles reduce the berms little by little, a Spanish unit, composed of 11 sappers from the 11th Engineers Regiment of the Spanish battle group, works nearby. The detachment, staffed by 1Lt. José Valeiras, arrived May 8 and has been working for eight weeks in order to help restore the airport.

Their responsibilities include levelling the 2.8 kilometres of track, which surrounds the airport to prevent the infiltration of water under the tarmac. This is not any easy task, especially when you consider the constant influx of air traffic landing at the facility on a regular basis, causing work to be stopped for several minutes at a time. .

"Although under French command, the Spanish sappers are autonomous," underlined Fayeaux. "They have their own vehicles and their way of working, but we are very complementary in our efforts."

For the 25th RGA the current phase of the project is at the end of a long chain of events. After having conducted continuous operations on the airport since 1992, the sappers will leave Theatre in September, when they will conclude their work at the facility.

Related links:
The Nations of SFOR: France
The Nations of SFOR: Spain