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Land Mines—Weighing the Cost

Land Mines—Weighing the Cost

Land Mines—Weighing the Cost

On December 26, 1993, six-year-old Augusto was strolling through an open field near Luanda, the capital of Angola. Suddenly he noticed a shiny object on the ground. Intrigued, he decided to pick it up. His next movement set off a land mine.

As a result of the blast, Augusto had to have his right foot amputated. Now 12 years old, he is confined to a wheelchair much of the time, and he is blind.

AUGUSTO was maimed by an antipersonnel land mine, so named because its prime target is people rather than tanks or other military vehicles. It is estimated that to date, more than 350 types of antipersonnel land mines have been manufactured in at least 50 countries. Many of these are designed to wound, not kill. Why? Because injured soldiers need assistance, and a soldier maimed by a land mine will slow down military operations—just what the enemy wants. Furthermore, the desperate cries of a wounded combatant can strike terror into the heart of his comrades. Hence, land mines are usually considered most effective when the victims survive—even if just barely.

As noted in the preceding article, however, most victims of land-mine explosions are civilians, not soldiers. This is not always accidental. According to the book Landmines—A Deadly Legacy, some explosives are “aimed deliberately at civilians in order to empty territory, destroy food sources, create refugee flows, or simply spread terror.”

To cite one example, in a Cambodian conflict, mines were placed around the perimeters of enemy villages, and then these villages were bombarded with artillery fire. Attempting to escape, civilians fled straight into the minefields. Meanwhile, in an effort to force the government to the bargaining table, members of the Khmer Rouge placed mines in rice paddies, striking fear into the hearts of farmers and virtually halting agriculture.

What happened in Somalia in 1988 was perhaps even more heinous. When Hargeysa was bombed, residents were forced to flee. Soldiers then planted land mines in the abandoned homes. When the fighting ended, the refugees returned, only to be maimed or killed by hidden explosives.

But land mines threaten more than life and limb. Consider some other effects of these sinister weapons.

Economic and Social Cost

Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, notes: “The presence—or even the fear of the presence—of a single landmine can prevent the cultivation of an entire field, rob a whole village of its livelihood, place yet another obstacle on a country’s road to reconstruction and development.” Thus, in Afghanistan and Cambodia, about 35 percent more land could be cultivated if farmers did not fear to tread on the soil. Some take the risk. “I’m terrified of mines,” says a Cambodian farmer. “But if I don’t go out to cut grass and bamboo, we won’t survive.”

Often, survivors of land-mine explosions face a crushing financial burden. For example, in a developing country, a child who loses a leg at ten years of age may need up to 15 artificial limbs during his or her lifetime, each of which will cost, on the average, $125. Granted, that may not sound too expensive to some. But for most of the population of Angola, $125 represents more than three months’ wages!

Consider also the agonizing social cost. Citizens in one Asian land, for instance, avoid socializing with amputees for fear of being contaminated by “bad luck.” Marriage might be just an elusive dream for an amputee. “I don’t plan to marry,” laments an Angolan man whose leg had to be amputated after he was injured in a land-mine explosion. “A woman wants a man who can work.”

Understandably, many victims suffer feelings of low self-worth. “I can no longer feed my family,” says a Cambodian man, “and this makes me ashamed.” Sometimes such feelings can be even more debilitating than the loss of a limb. “I believe that the greatest damage I experienced was emotional,” says Artur, a victim in Mozambique. “Many times I would become irritated simply because someone looked my way. I thought that no one had any respect for me anymore and that I would never again have a normal life.” *

What About Demining?

In recent years intensive efforts have been put forth to encourage nations to ban the use of land mines. In addition, some governments have begun the dangerous task of removing those mines that have been planted. But several obstacles stand in the way. One has to do with time. Demining is painfully slow. In fact, deminers estimate that, on the average, it takes a hundred times longer to clear a mine than to plant one. Another obstacle is expense. A single mine costs between $3 and $15, but to remove one can cost up to $1,000.

Thus, total demining seems virtually impossible. To clear all the mines in Cambodia, for example, would require that everyone in that country devote his entire income to this task for the next several years. It is estimated that even if the finances were available, removing all the mines there would take a century. The worldwide picture is even more dismal. It is estimated that using current technology, demining the planet would cost $33 billion and take more than a thousand years!

Granted, innovative techniques for clearing mines have been proposed—from the use of fruit flies that are genetically manipulated to detect explosives to the use of giant radio-controlled vehicles that would demine five acres [2 ha] per hour. It may be some time, though, before such techniques can be used on a large scale, and they will likely be available only to the richest countries.

In most places, therefore, demining is accomplished the old-fashioned way. A man crawls on his belly probing the soil ahead with a stick, inch by inch, clearing 200 [20] to 500 [50] square feet a day. Dangerous? Yes! For every 5,000 mines cleared, one deminer is killed and two are injured.

Efforts to Unite Against Land Mines

In December 1997, representatives from a number of countries signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, also known as the Ottawa treaty. “This is an achievement without precedent or parallel in either international disarmament or international humanitarian law,” says Jean Chrétien, prime minister of Canada. * Still, nearly 60 countries—including some of the world’s greatest land-mine manufacturers—have not yet signed the treaty.

Will the Ottawa treaty succeed in eliminating the scourge of land mines? Perhaps to some extent. But many are skeptical. “Even if all the countries of the world would adhere to the proceedings of Ottawa,” points out Claude Simonnot, a codirector of Handicap International, in France, “that would be only one step in the direction of freeing the planet from all danger of mines.” Why? “Millions of mines remain buried in the soil, patiently waiting for future victims,” Simonnot says.

Military historian John Keegan brings up another factor. Warfare, he says, “reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, . . . where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king.” Treaties cannot reverse such deeply entrenched human traits as hatred and greed. But does this mean that humans will forever be helpless victims of land mines?


^ par. 13 For more information on dealing with the loss of a limb, see the cover series entitled “Hope for the Disabled,” appearing on pages 3-10 of the June 8, 1999, issue of Awake!

^ par. 20 The treaty went into effect on March 1, 1999. As of January 6, 2000, it had been signed by 137 countries and ratified by 90 of them.

[Box on page 6]

Making Money Twice?

A basic principle of business is that companies are liable when their products cause harm. Thus, Lou McGrath, of the Mines Advisory Group, argues that companies that have profited from manufacturing land mines should be obliged to pay reparations. Ironically, though, many of the manufacturers have been the very ones to profit from demining. For example, a former mine producer from Germany reportedly got a $100-million demining contract in Kuwait. And in Mozambique a $7.5-million contract for clearing priority roads went to a consortium of three companies—two of which had developed mines.

Some feel that it is grossly immoral for the companies that manufacture land mines to be the ones to make money clearing them. In a sense, they claim, land-mine developers are making money twice. Be that as it may, both the manufacturing and the disarming of land mines continue to be thriving businesses.

[Diagram on page 5]

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Average number of land mines per square mile [2.5 sq km] in the nine most densely mined countries










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Source: United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, 1996

[Pictures on page 7]

In Cambodia, graphic posters and signs warn of land mines

For every 5,000 mines cleared, one deminer is killed and two are injured

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Background: © ICRC/Paul Grabhorn

© ICRC/Till Mayer

© ICRC/Philippe Dutoit