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Dodging Landmines in the Mountains of Croatia

By Adam Maršál

Professional biker Richard Gasperotti and his friends came back from this trip just a few days before Europe ended up in a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As their destination was the mountains of Croatia, the forgotten minefields planted there back in the 90s posed a considerably higher risk than the disease crawling in slowly from China. But none of the bikers was aware of the invisible threat, which has been lurking in the area for decades.

A night drive was enough to get almost to the destination. The Tulove Grede peak in the Velebit mountain range reflected the light of the rising sun in a dazzling shine. But the group did not rejoice in this breathtaking beauty because a phantom of unease started to creep into their minds. Suddenly, all their plans seemed to be endangered by the threat that surrounded them once the dawn illuminated the terrain around them…

© Miloš Štáfek

The Velebit mountains are located about an hour’s drive east from Zadar, a beautiful historical harbour situated on the Adriatic coast. “We picked this area on account of the Winnetou movie trilogy from the late 60s that was shot in this beautiful scenery. We all loved this story when we were kids, and the enchanting landscape is part of our recollections,” Richard Gasperotti explains.

Dodging potholes in the bad gravel road, the company climbed up the mountains just before daybreak. Now the light revealed what the crew should have known before planning the trip: scattered all along the fire road were signs showing skulls and crossed bones telling the group that they landed right in the middle of a minefield.

Roughly two million mines were laid in Croatia during the Croatian War of Independence fought between 1991 and 1995. A decade after the peace agreement was signed, there were still about 250,000 mines buried alongside former front lines. According to statistics, more than 1,900 people were killed or injured by landmines in Croatia during the war, and several hundreds more followed after the war ended.

Because there are thousands of huge rocks scattered near the Velebit mountain range, the area is difficult to access, which makes it almost impossible to clear the remaining mines. On top of that, the plans of the minefields either went missing or never existed, so nobody can distinguish safe land from deadly fields. Unfortunately, the crew didn’t have this information before their departure from Prague. Now what? Give up and retreat?

© Miloš Štáfek

A local guide that randomly stopped by to check what the guys with bikes intended to do persuaded the crew to stay on the designated slope leading to the central massif. Even though the area was marked as safe, it aroused feelings of strange concern in the back of everyone’s head. The temperature reluctantly climbed over 4 °C, and the bikers were trembling in gusts of wind blowing at up to 80 km/h. Pushing the bikes up the steep slope, everyone had enough time to consider the risk of stepping on one of the long-forgotten mines. “We believed the guide, but the red signs with skulls attached to rocks made us change our minds after several rounds. Moreover, riding across the rock gardens was far less entertaining than we expected based on the photos on Google Maps,” Richard says.

The next day, when the night blizzard finally stopped, the bikers put their stuff in their car and drove about 200 km north to explore the area around the Vidajl peak located near Rijeka. But this is another story, lacking a touch of adventure.