Keeping his people safe, one cautious step at a time

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World at Work

KAI RYSSDAL: Break down the global economy and what do you have? Get past enormous multinational corporations and smaller domestic companies and you've got individuals. Getting up and going to work every day.

Today we start a new series on the program, World at Work. It's a collaboration between Marketplace and Homelands Productions. Every month we'll take you inside the life of a single worker in that global economy.

We begin overseas, on a wooded hillside near the border between Kosovo and Albania. Two men are unraveling electrical line from a spool. They carefully lay explosives on a bed of dried leaves.

Blowing up landmines and unexploded bombs is an honest day's work for these men and thousands like them around the world. For the people who live nearby, though, it's a lifesaver. Sandy Tolan has the first installment of World at Work:


SANDY TOLAN: Valdet Dule puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like you and me. But then he dons a bullet-proof vest and straps on a metal helmet with a fire-resistant visor.
VALDET DULE: In case of an accident, it's not possible for the flames of an explosion to burn the face or the eyes. If we don't wear this equipment as it's described in the manual, the consequences of an accident will be very grave.

Valdet flips on his metal detector.

DULE: When we go in field in the first time, test detector. [Beeeep . . .] Means it's all right.

On a frosty morning along the Kosovo-Albania border, a team of mine sweepers fans out along carefully-marked paths in the forest. Valdet, husband and father of two small children, does his work one tiny step at a time.

In his steel-toed boots, with his arms outstretched, Valdet lets his metal detector lead the way, through leaves, brush and rocks. Even in his bomb suit, he's vulnerable — there's no protection for his legs or genitals.

Sometimes the equipment will detect a buried tin can, or a rusty nail, or even metallic content in stone. But all around and beneath Valdet's feet lie thousands of antipersonnel mines planted, it's believed, by Serb forces in 1999. The mines were strung like pearls on a necklace just underground, but exactly where, no one here knows. Valdet and his partners have destroyed more than 10,000 of them. Most are barely 3 inches in diameter and weigh only 6 ounces. Unexploded, the mine looks something like a large child's top.

Valdet steps gingerly. On the front of his vest is his name; his ID number, 621; and his blood type, O. Just in case.

DULE: I am very proud of the job that we are doing because we are doing it for the community, we are saving human lives. For children who are looking after animals, for people who are getting wood in the forest. Now in many areas they can move easily, without danger.

It wasn't always so. One day after the war in Dubrona, just down the road, an 18-year-old named Korub Mula was herding his family's cow through pasture. Korub stepped on a mine. It ripped into his legs, seriously wounding them. He fell and landed on another mine, which ripped off parts of both arms.

SASHA MULA: It was the worst moment in my life when I learned my son had fallen on the mine.

That's Korub's mother, Sasha Mula.

MULA: Even if you hear about someone else, you cry — to say nothing of your own son. It was a big misfortune for my family.

Korub's family can no longer rely on him for planting and harvesting like they used to. They must tend their grapes, make their honey, thresh their corn, chop their firewood without his help. Korub's mother is 48; she looks 75 and exhausted.

MULA: We knew that the area was mined. But we didn't know that the area was mined so close. We had no choice but to graze the cows. Until the last mine is cleared from this area, who knows? There will be more accidents because of the need to go and use these areas.

Valdet says it's stories like Korub's — and there are so many of them — that motivate him not only to help the villagers but also to work very carefully.

DULE: Now we are in the landmine area. I am walking uphill around 50 meters to search for mines.

Valdet kneels on a narrow peninsula of ground between strips of red and white tape made taut with wooden stakes. He lays out his tools: detector, grass clippers, a long narrow prodder the shape of an ice pick, and a spade. Inside the lines of tape, the earth is safe, swept clean of mines. On the other side of this boundary no one knows.

DULE: We observe visually. Here you have leaves, wood chips. We look for wires coming from underground.

Valdet picks up his clippers, and reaches beyond the tape, into the danger zone. He takes a handful of grass and cuts it to an inch high so the detector can sweep freely. When he encounters a strong signal, he'll pick up his prodder and poke gently underground from an angle. If Valdet touches metal, he'll put down the prodder, take his spade and dig. Carefully.

On the days when Valet finds a mine . . .

DULE: I stand up and raise my hand. "Mine!"

Then the explosives team arrives, and the medics are put on alert. Mine sweepers were killed and maimed here early in the work, but the teams have been accident-free for more than a year-and-a-half now.

DULE: When I am here I try to forget all of my concerns and all of my sorrows and everything else because small mistakes here . . . it's my life. So I have to be really concentrated doing all the work I am doing here.

Sometimes, that's not so easy to do. Valdet's salary is about $600 per month, paid for by a Danish humanitarian group. He has to work a second job as a waiter to support an extended family of 13. He monitors fatigue because it can affect not only every movement but every thought.

At times working the field he'll recall the terrible stories of war, like the kind recounted by friends over and over on cold nights in the village.

WOMAN: I saw the flames of the houses burning, and then I heard the sound of the weapons. And they killed all the males in front of the house.

I tried to shield this scene from the eyes of the boy. I saw all the bodies there, lying there in the garden of the house. I couldn't do anything. For two hours I stayed there — doing nothing, only crying. I was thinking, "What to do? How to bury them?"

There are times when Valdet stands along the Kosovo-Albania border, prodding the ground for mines, and he finds himself thinking back to those times, those conversations. When this happens, he'll catch himself and stop. If he can't shake the memories, he'll call for his supervisor.

DULE: And then I'll have a day off, in order to be able to come back to work the next day.

On days like that, he'll often gather with friends, mostly unemployed, huddled around a campfire near the town's war memorial. They put their hands out toward the flame and think about the future of Kosovo and the martyrs buried just on the other side of the wrought-iron gate.

But the breaks are short, the work is too vital for his family and for the villages along the border.

By daybreak Valdet and his fellow mine sweepers are back at headquarters, blowing on their hands and on steaming cups of coffee, their breath mixing with the truck exhaust as they prepare to head back into the minefields.

DULE: I'd like to say goodbye. For me, it's time to go and work. And thank you very much for your visit.

RYSSDAL: Sandy Tolan sent us that piece from the Kosovo-Albanian border. Help on our minesweeper story came from Barbara Frye.

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