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The legacy of land-mines

Of all the weapons that have accumulated over years of war, few are more persistent and more lethal to children than land-mines . Hundreds of thousands of children, herding animals, planting crops or just playing, have been killed or maimed by these deadly devices.

Since 1975, land-mines have exploded under more than 1 million people and are currently thought to be killing 800 people a month. There seems little prospect of any end to the carnage. In 64 countries around the world, there are an estimated 110 million land-mines still lodged in the ground—waiting.50 They remain active for decades. As one Khmer Rouge general put it, a land-mine is a perfect soldier: "Ever courageous, never sleeps, never misses."

Photo: Land-mines are catastrophic for children, whose small bodies are particularly vulnerable to the injuries they inflict. One of the mosts heavily mined countries in the world is Afghanistan. ©

There are basically two types of land-mines: anti-tank and anti-personnel. The most dangerous to children are the anti-personnel mines that explode even under the gentle pressure of a child's hand or foot. These come in a bewildering array of shapes and colours. Some look like stones, others like pineapples. But all can seem an interesting discovery for a curious child. One of the most infamous is the 'butterfly' mine, designed to float to the ground from helicopters without exploding, but with a shape and colour that also make it a deadly toy.

Virtually all combatants use land-mines. During the Persian Gulf war, the US and its allies laid about 1 million mines along the Iraq-Kuwait border and around the Iraqi city of Basra. And some 3 million have been laid in the continuing Balkan war. Some of the largest numbers lie in wait in Africa and Asia. The countries most devastated by land-mines are probably Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia. Afghanistan has an estimated 10-15 million mines in place.51 It is clear that many of these have been randomly scattered in inhabited areas precisely to cause civilian casualties and terrorize the population.52

Adults caught in the blast of an anti-personnel mine often survive with treatment, though they usually lose a limb. Children are less likely to survive because their bodies are so vulnerable. Those who do live will be seriously injured. A child may lose one or both legs or arms and sustain serious injuries to the genitals and abdomen. Shrapnel may also cause blindness and disfigurement. All of this happens in countries that have difficulty offering the simplest medicines or pain-killers, let alone artificial limbs. In El Salvador, fewer than 20 per cent of child victims receive any kind of remedial therapy; the rest have had to fend for themselves as best they can—often begging or stealing to survive (Panel 5).

Land-mines cause enormous pain and suffering but they also bring lingering economic and social costs. In addition to the expense of medical treatment, and the cost to families of caring for injured relatives, they also hinder the flow of goods and people, and put huge areas of agricultural land out of production. In addition, the availability of land-mines contributes to the permanent 'militarization' of daily life. So common are they in Cambodia that they are now used for fishing, or as property security devices, or even to settle domestic disputes.

Land-mines can be cleared—but only laboriously and at enormous expense. Ironically, these weapons that can cost less than US$3 each to manufacture can cost up to US$1,000 each to clear. Trained workers have to crawl their way along, probing the soil ahead, inch by inch. One person can clear only 20 to 50 square metres per day.

The international community is slowly realizing the implications of a world studded with land-mines. Unfortunately, it has not been sufficiently shocked to take effective action. In 1993, it allocated only US$70 million for mine clearance in countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia and Mozambique. In the same year, however, a further 2 million mines were laid—leaving a 'de-mining deficit' of 1.9 million mines, and adding some US$1.4 billion to the future cost of clearance.

Apart from the demand for mines from combatants, one of the major problems is that dozens of companies around the world, many of them household names, are still content to manufacture and sell these destructive devices. An increasing revulsion at this trade is encouraging a number of organizations to refuse to do business with companies involved in the sale or production of such weapons. Among United Nations organizations, UNICEF has joined the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in supporting such a boycott.

At the time of the announcement of the boycott, Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, dealt with land-mines squarely: "For my part, I see little difference between those who use them and those who produce them....Whatever the present legality of manufacturing such weapons, the toll they take on innocent civilians amounts to a crime against humankind."53

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