In mine-riddled Bosnia, bomb dogs are life savers

WASHINGTON — When Betsy, a 7-year-old bomb-sniffing dog from Bosnia-Herzegovina, arrived in the U.S. to receive an award for her life-saving work finding abandoned landmines, she was offered the treatment a hero of her stature deserves — a trip to a luxury canine resort, far from the dangerous battleground where U.S. troops first deployed nearly 20 years ago.

Her trainer, Alden Cesko, wanted a room too. “Of course,” said Cesko. “It’s my girl.”

Cesko taught Betsy to sniff for high explosives, sitting and pointing her nose to signal a discovery. They wake at 4 or 5 each morning, and Betsy takes tests promptly at 6 to ensure her detection abilities are 100 percent. She’s a Belgian Malinois — perked ears, black face and light brown body — who has cleared 240,000 square meters since she started searching for landmines in 2009.

Cesko and Betsy took a break from landmine clearing to spend Wednesday night in Washington, D.C., celebrating their selection as trainer-dog team of the year at the nonprofit Marshall Legacy Institute’s annual gala. The organization, which is dedicated to removing landmines, was founded by retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan in memory of Gen. George Marshall, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work helping societies recover after World War II.

Cesko’s dedication won Betsy the “Top Dog” award, says Sead Vrana, an official in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “The handler — that’s what makes the difference,” says Vrana, chief of explosive ordinance disposal at the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina Civil Protection, who is much more comfortable in his field uniform than in his suit. “They love each other. I’m witnessing that every day. “

Vrana said there were about 200,000 to 300,000 landmines in Bosnia-Herzegovina as of 2009, the latest estimate. About 30 percent of the population lives on or surrounds the landmines, he said, and there’s much more work to be done.

The U.S. deployed more than 16,000 troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996 to help NATO allies stabilize the region following the Bosnian War. Today, more than 700 Army National Guard troops remain nearby in Kosovo, where the conflict continued after warring factions in Bosnia-Herzegovina signed a peace agreement in 1995.

After years of conflict, Army officials estimated that more than 750,000 mines had been planted by the warring groups. Many regarded them as the biggest security threat to U.S. personnel, noting that landmines caused about one-third of all U.N. casualties there.

Today in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a team of five mine-detection dogs clears an average of 600 square meters each day. Two additional dogs are expected to join the effort next week. The Marshall Legacy Institute, which has focused on demining war-torn countries, has sponsored 199 dogs for training worldwide.

Dogs are an effective way of removing mines because of their accuracy, efficiency and reduction in casualties, experts said. Since the program began 17 years ago, no dog or handler has been injured or killed.

There are, however, some limitations. For instance, the dogs can’t cover mountain terrain, and the longer a mine stays in the ground, the deeper it becomes and the harder to detect.

The Belgian Malinois, a sheepherding dog, is popular for police and military purposes. Its work ethic and intelligence makes it an easy species to train. “She,” Vrana said, motioning to Betsy, “is the most important part of the whole process.”

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