Where angels fear to tread

May 27 2003 | by

“MUMMY, come over here, look at this”. As I turned towards my young son, a chill ran through me, for I realised that he was picking up a landmine.

The small green plastic object with a ‘wing’, now in his hand, was a ‘butterfly mine’. We were at a One World exhibition in London and James had reached the Landmines Campaign stand ahead of me. I knew there could be no risk of the display model exploding, but I reflected that many Afghan parents had similarly observed their children homing in on brightly coloured objects, perceiving them to be toys, and then witnessed their children being blown up!

In fact, between 15,000 to 20,000 people are killed or maimed worldwide each year by landmines, according to United Nations figures. Of those, 80% are civilians and one-third are children. So, every 20 minutes, someone is killed or injured somewhere in the world by one of the 100 million mines scattered around the globe.

Afghanistan: littered with landmines

In Afghanistan, an average of 88 people die every month because of landmine injuries, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Refugees returning to their villages since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 have been finding unexploded ordnance from cluster bombs everywhere, each bomblet about the size of an aerosol can. They also discover landmines, such as the butterfly mine, or others which leap into the air, exploding into a thousand metal splinters and maiming everyone within a 25 metre radius. Unexploded ordnance and landmines are the legacy of a prolonged civil war and Soviet occupation of poverty-stricken Afghanistan. Also, thousands of unexploded yellow bomblets remain from the U.S. bombing of the country, which began in the month following the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Although it is nearly two years since the Taliban regime fell, Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Around 10 million landmines litter the countryside in former battle zones, along roads and footpaths, in irrigation channels, and even in urban areas. They pose an enormous threat to the country’s recovery because the economy rests on agriculture and livestock. Landmines have wreaked havoc by frightening farmers away from their lands and by killing sheep and goats. People have to get on with their lives, however, and some simply cover the mines and unexploded bomblets with overturned wash basins to keep chickens and other living things away.

Why haven’t all the mines been removed now that the country enjoys relative peace? In short, landmine detection and removal is a slow and costly process - finance and political will are lacking. The U.S., for example, contributes only $7 million for current de-mining efforts in Afghanistan and has so far not provided a list of areas where it dropped cluster bombs. Cleaning up the whole country will actually cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The UN Mine Action Centre coordinates 124 mine-clearing teams, but has only managed to clear about 50 square miles of contaminated land in this vast country. There are other costs too, linked to the huge human toll of landmine injuries. Tens of thousands of Afghans cannot afford a prosthesis and are getting by without a foot or hand with makeshift crutches. Some are deaf or blind. All deal with severe psychological effects.

Iraq: a deadly legacy

In May - one month after the U.S.-led war on Iraq ended - it was estimated that at least 200 Iraqi civilians had been killed by unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs during the first four weeks of ‘peace’. As in Afghanistan, these present a constant danger to civilians because the unexploded munitions create de facto minefields.

Both the U.S. and UK used them in the war. When Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) admitted that the British army had fired more than 2,000 cluster munitions in the battle for Basra, the organisation Landmine Action criticised the use of so many in a heavily populated area as “appalling”. Amnesty International, which has called for an independent inquiry into the U.S. and British coalition’s use of cluster munitions in Iraq, said in April that its workers in Basra reported seeing munitions “lying next to homes of university staff which were still inhabited”. They witnessed children playing around them.

Casualty departments in Iraqi hospitals, operating largely without anaesthetic, have reported treating farmers who stepped on mines, scrap dealers who tried to salvage brass from unexploded shells; and children who played games amidst unexploded ordnance and even with unexploded ordnance. Over a two-day period in April at the hospital in just one town - Jalula - there were 12 incidents of burns, mine and cluster bomblet injuries. One of them was Satair Ahmed Abbas, 15, who had been playing with explosives on waste ground near a military camp. He sat stoically as the doctor examined his charred face. “He’s lost one eye; we may be able to save the other” the doctor said.

Hampering Africa’s development

The abundance of land mines in numerous African countries is a major impediment to the ability of more than 10 million displaced persons to reclaim their lands, even though some long-standing wars have come to an end in recent years. In Angola, for instance, the death of rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, in February 2002 paved the way for a ceasefire agreement after 27 years of civil war. Humanitarian access to the country’s 4.1 million internally displaced persons began to improve almost immediately. However, Angola’s estimated 8 to10 million land mines have prevented people from simply going back to their rural villages to take up farming again. “The fields look safe but we can’t walk in them,” said one farmer.

Mozambique, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia are also among the most heavily mined countries in the world. Indeed, one third of the world’s landmines are found in Africa. Land mines used during conflict in the Casamance region of Senegal have rendered eighty percent of farmland in the region unusable. Border areas in the neighbouring Guinea-Bissau have been mined, adversely affecting the successful reintegration of displaced people in that country into their original communities. In Ethiopia and Eritrea, tens of thousands of mines were laid during their 1998-2000 border war, and thousands still remain from World War II and the Italian occupation. Landmines take minutes to lay, but decades to remove. Tilahun Kidan, the head of Rado, an Ethiopian organisation which aims to raise mine awareness, says that mines in Ethiopia have “prevented farmers from farming their lands, pastoralists from using rangelands and water points, and they have caused social infrastructures to remain idle”.

Undermining peace in Asia

Landmines and unexploded ordnance in Sri Lanka continue killing and maiming civilians, despite a peace process following two decades of civil war. The majority of those hurt are adult males - breadwinners for their families – who search for firewood or return to abandoned homes and start doing repair work, until disaster strikes. Since the UN started keeping records from 1996, nearly 1,000 people have been killed or injured by mines in the country - and that does not include government soldiers and Tamil Tiger rebels. About a quarter of all casualties have been children. The UN is now collating information from Sri Lankan army maps, de-mining groups and reported mine accidents to build up a database of the location of minefields. But even now, nobody knows how many mines may lie hidden under the ground. Estimates vary from nearly one million to three million.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are engaged in a massive landmine-laying operation along their disputed border in Kashmir, possibly the largest deployment of mines in decades. The minefields stretch for mile after mile and are close to villages and farming land. Darbara Singh, for example, is a farmer living just one kilometre away from the Pakistani border. Since December 2001 his fields have been planted with landmines and his cattle can no longer graze there. “We cannot stay in our houses, as the fear of guns is always looming over our heads,” he complains to visitors in his frontline village of Devigarh. “We cannot visit our fields, as landmines have been laid there. Where shall we go?” Tens of thousands of rural people in the Kashmir region, and the livestock that make up their source of wealth, have been affected.


International action


The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), founded by Jody Williams, was formally launched by six non-governmental organisations in 1992. Because of the extraordinary contribution she and the campaign made to the cause of banning and clearing anti-personnel mines worldwide, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. The cause was further highlighted that same year when Diana, Princess of Wales, visited Angola, and later war-torn Bosnia, championing the anti-mine cause. Other celebrities who continue to draw attention to the issue include Sir Paul McCartney and Angelina Jolie, who was alerted to the issue while filming Tomb Raider in Cambodia, where approximately 100 people are killed or injured each month by landmines.

The Ottawa Landmine Treaty came into force in 1999. The Treaty prohibits the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of anti-personnel landmines, requires the eradication of landmine stockpiles within four years, and the clearing of all landmines within ten years. To date, 142 countries have signed the Treaty and 122 governments have ratified it. The U.S., however, is not one of the Treaty’s participants. While most NATO members have signed, the U.S. continues to insist that landmines remain an integral part of its military strategy in Korea and elsewhere. It currently has a stockpile of about 11 million landmines. Yet, even without U.S. participation, the Treaty has had many positive results over the past four years: reductions in landmine production, sales, deaths, and a greater emphasis on clearing landmines. However, they continue to cause untold suffering around the world. As many as 16 countries still rely on landmines as a tactical weapon, including the U.S., Russia, Uzbekistan, Burma, Sri Lanka, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II has called on all countries to join the convention amid fears that powerful countries will continue to avoid signing the treaty. He criticised major producers of landmines, like the China, Russia and the U.S. for refusing to sign away their right to use what they consider to be a valuable weapon. “This treaty signifies a victory for the culture of life over the culture of death,” he said. “I pray to God to give all people the courage to make peace, so that the countries that have not yet signed this important instrument of international humanitarian law do so without delay,” he added.


Updated on October 06 2016