President and co-founder of UDAS, The Association for Amputees Zeljko Volas, who was just 21 years old when he lost his leg to a landmine during a mine clearance of a war zone in the city of Bugojno in Central Bosnia, told The Sarajevo Times that there is ample room to improve the status of mine victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina through equal treatment, support programs and the understanding that mine survivors have much to contribute to society.
Landmine Victims are Judged and Discriminated in the Community
“It is a very difficult and overwhelming feeling when someone blames you for being different from the rest,” Mr Volas told The Sarajevo Times.
In the summer of 2000, when the UDAS President was wearing shorts in public, a stranger yelled at him for exposing his prosthetic limb.
But according to Mr Volas, that incident was not an isolated one.
“People, in general, have such reactions,” he explained, adding that disabled people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are “marked because they are different.”
“It is a huge burden to be different in the community in which we live, especially whilst being constantly labeled and not accepted for our differences,” Mr Volas stated.
Even the term ‘landmine victim’ itself carries a negative connotation, he said. “In B&H, the word ‘victim’ is still viewed as someone who failed at life.”
The repeated discriminatory behaviour and “constant labelling by the community” that Mr Volas experienced is precisely what inspired him to co-found the Association for Amputees in 2002, driven by the goal to advocate for equal social treatment.
“Amputees did not belong anywhere, so we decided to initiate creation of an association that would fight for the rights of amputees, especially mine victims,” he said.
More Needs to Be Done in Mine Action
According to Mr Volas, mine action efforts are insufficient, landmine survivors are “still on the sidelines of society,” and the government is not assisting.
“The issue of landmine casualties is one of the lowest priorities of B&H’s governments, although it is the country’s obligation to support mine victims,” Mr Volas said. “So far, no support programs for mine victims have been done by the state”.
“We have not taken enough action and responsibility to free the country from landmines and make it more secure for the lives of all citizens,” he continued.
“We do not have clear financed programs for rehabilitation of mine victims because authorities in B&H do not fund it,” Mr Volas said, adding that “quality prosthesis are extremely difficult to come by.”
The UDAS President said that not only is it vital that a clear action plan to support mine victims is created, but that local communities need to be motivated to develop their own support programs for mine victims, including opening regional centres across the country.
“We do not have adequate rehabilitation, and communities still see us as a burden, not as someone who can participate in community development”.
“It is my wish that in the coming period, a quality network of mine victims is created in order to empower each other, and primarily to participate in the development of their local communities, be active and equal with others,” he said.
Mine Survivors Need To Be Given a Chance to Thrive as Valuable Members of Society
Mr Volas told The Sarajevo Times that he wants the public to understand that mine survivors are people who have endured significant trauma requiring a strong degree of emotional labour, and thus are highly psychologically resilient individuals deserving of equitable treatment in society.
“There is simply no easy way to deal with a limb loss,” said the UDAS President. Recounting his own experience immediately after his mine injury, Mr Volas said that “the change was enormous…I had big dreams, I wanted to travel, play sports, but all of that changed in just one second. I had to face the powerlessness of having to lie in bed.”
“Mine survivors are people who have dealt with their trauma, and that dealing itself requires great psychological and mental strength and willpower,” he said. “A willpower to want to be active in sports, in community development, in cultural activities and many other activities that communities have to offer.— We just need to give them a chance to be equal with other citizens.”
Mr Volas said it is important for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina to know that mine survivors offer valuable contribution to the community, and have the potential to be “productive members” of society, as he himself has and continues to be.
In addition to his work as President of UDAS, Mr Volas, is also an international athlete who represented Bosnia and Herzegovina at the People With Disabilities Championship for badminton. He also joined other mine victims last year in climbing Mount Triglav, the highest mountaineering peak in Slovenia.
Zeljko Volas’ Message for Mine Victims
Mr Volas, who initially believed he would never walk again, quickly learned that there was hope for him to lead a functional and fulfilling life irrespective of his injury, and wishes to impart this insight onto fellow survivors of mine accidents.
“[At first] I thought I would stay in a wheelchair forever, and that I would never be able to walk on my own again,” the UDAS President told The Sarajevo Times.
“After getting out of the hospital and getting a prosthesis, I saw that I could function and that life can and must go on. I met a few colleagues who had suffered the same limb loss and who lived a good-quality life with the prosthesis. All of this gave me hope and faith that I, too, could go on, live, work, and fully recover myself,” he said.
“I understood that a limb loss was just a physical loss…I figured that while remaining psychologically active, I still could revive my dreams that I had before the incident. And I did revive them.”
Mr Volas offered the following words to victims of mine injury: “it is important for every mine survivor to understand that loss of a limb is not the end of life, and that it is important to restart yourself, no matter how difficult it seems right after the incident.”
“It is a long process, it takes a lot of time, strength and perseverance, but success and full recovery is possible.”
Written by Miya Yamanouchi for Sarajevo Times