Trail of terror
Hopes are high for a ban on these cowardly weapons. But a true release from their legacy, explains Dinyar Godrej, will require courage - and cash.
The central fact about landmines that overrules all others is that of mine injury. No attempt at empathy can make us understand this reality. One step and the body can turn into a shower of gory scraps, impossible to piece together again. Or else the person survives but a limb (or more) is torn away and what is left is shattered, unimaginably mutilated.
There is a deafening blast and a smell of blood and burnt flesh mingled with dirt. For the victim, events telescope onto another plane of feeling - a paradoxical quiet accompanied by not being able to figure out what has happened. Some will remember seeing a flower growing nearby, or another mine, or a severed limb their own or that of a friend or relative who was with them and who may now be dead. In their state of shock they may not feel pain. They may try to get up and run and find themselves repeatedly falling down. Panic, pain and, indeed, reality can sometimes be delayed until the person is discovered and she observes other people's fear and distress.
In 1995 Ken Rutherford, a founder of Landmine Survivors Network which campaigns for support to survivors worldwide, testified before the United Nations Review Conference on landmines in Vienna. He recalled how in December 1993 he had been working in Somalia, helping people apply for development loans. One day while travelling to a project site near the border with Ethiopia his car hit a landmine.
'After the explosion, I first remember seeing a foot lying on the floorboard of the car. I remember thinking: "Is it mine?" It was. It was my right foot. I remember that I kept trying to put it back on, but it kept falling off. Then I looked at my left foot. The top part was ripped off and I could see bones going to my toe, one of which was missing.'
Despite this life-changing event, he retains a humbling clarity about the privileges his US nationality conferred on him. 'I am here today because of the resources I had at my disposal. I had a radio to call for help and airplanes to evacuate me. Most landmine victims are not so lucky. The UN estimates that the average lifetime care of a landmine victim costs from $5,000 to $7,000. My medical costs have already exceeded a quarter of a million dollars.'
The same year that Ken Rutherford was addressing those words to diplomats, 10-year-old Sharbat Khan was talking to a teacher for child patients at a hospital run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Quetta, Pakistan. With his sister, he had been collecting pieces of scrap iron for sale. When the shopkeeper put them to weigh on a scale one of the pieces fell and blew up. 'I fell down and there was a lot of dust. After a few minutes I saw that my right hand and the two fingers of my left hand were cut off. Then I fainted..... The next day my father borrowed some money and rented a car to bring me to Pakistan. It has taken three days and nights to reach [the] hospital. To evacuate me to Quetta was quite a difficult matter for my family. Firstly, we are very poor; second, all the people and relatives had the impression that I would die anyway and should not be taken to Pakistan.'
Thousands of people in the Majority World have been forced to take these hard decisions about their loved ones measuring out lives against desperately scarce cash. Many have gone into serious debt or have witnessed the break-up of their families when carers could no longer cope.
We could argue till the cows came home about whether the UN estimate of 110 million mines in the ground worldwide is too high or too low such statistics are often little more than educated guesses. We could estimate costs for demining and for medical care, and then we could do our sums again the next day and, possibly, come up with new figures. But none of our statistics would change the central fact of mine injury its sheer horror, its endless trail of misery.
One might think: 'People are bound to be blown to bits in a war. Why all the fuss about landmines?' The fuss occurs precisely because these weapons are different. And it is their very difference that has made the campaign for a ban so effective. In common with the already stigmatized chemical and biological weapons, landmines have particular characteristics that make them especially repugnant.
The calls for a ban on these weapons focus on the antipersonnel variety. Where antitank mines or other forms of ordnance have been rigged up so that they are set off by people rather than the equipment they were designed to counteract, these are no different in function than other more typical antipersonnel mines and should be included in a ban.
Apart from the injuries they inflict, which war surgeons say are among the most horrendous they encounter (see The war surgeon), landmines are indiscriminate, ripping apart civilians as well as soldiers. Increasingly in recent years the nature of war has shifted: where once rival armies fought it out now the civilian population is terrorized as a tactic of control. Warlords and military bigwigs alike find landmines work a treat in doing this: they never sleep. A few expensive 'smart' mines aside, they remain active for decades, long after conflicts have been settled or have moved on to other areas. In Poland, the 30 years after World War Two had ended saw mines left over from it kill 4,000 people and injure 9,000. This was despite the clearance of 15 million mines at great expense.1
Someone somewhere sets off a mine every 20 minutes. Around 2,000 people a month are injured by mines, around half of whom will die, either instantly or their lives trickling away in isolated fields.
If wars were conducted by the rule book, the injury and murder of civilians in such a gruesome way would not happen the Geneva Convention forbids it. But the rules have been ignored. Antipersonnel landmines have featured so largely in recent conflicts in the Majority World partly because they are so cheap the
A close friend of mine, Julie Harrington, worked for the British charity Oxfam and visited Angola in 1994 and 1996, when she took celebrity guests to publicize the landmines problem there. In Angola civil war had followed hard on the heels of the war for independence: years of bitter fighting ensued between the Angolan Army and the rebel faction UNITA. While the US, apartheid South Africa, Cuba and the Soviet Union were key players (hoping to muscle in on Angola's natural resources), mines were also supplied by a string of other countries: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe. Today, with a shaky peace beginning to take root, mines are just about everywhere between 10 to 20 million of them.2 Julie well remembers her trip to Ganda, a former holiday resort in a region with fertile soil. The once busy road leading from the coast inland to Ganda hadn't been used for at least two years because of mines. Water sources had been mined, the electricity supply cut off and the fields were bristling with the weapons, so no food could be grown. Oxfam had recently received permission to put up water tanks.
'What I saw in Ganda was just devastation, people had been dying everywhere from malnutrition. Mines were used very intentionally to stop people producing, to actually kill the population. The main problem was getting to water. People would have to leave their compounds to fetch it and that's when they would go over a mine. You'd meet people who had lost a leg and ask them, "Do you still get water from the same place?" and they'd say, "Yes where else am I going to get it from?"'
In Cambodia where fertile croplands have been mined, people face a similar dilemma. Faced with starvation, they have braved the mines, which has led people to remark that Cambodia is being demined an arm and leg at a time.
When Julie went to the local hospital in Ganda, she saw 'a white building which for Angola looked quite stunning. It actually had a roof on it. It had a tree growing outside with lilac on the top of it. I lulled myself into this false sense of security that this was a hospital that was functioning. Of course inside it was the dingiest, darkest hole you had ever seen. No beds just people lying around on horrible dirty mats with all sorts of illness. I walked past what looked like an operating theatre from the 1940s that hadn't been touched in years. Later on I remarked on it and the fellow from the Red Cross unit said "Julie, we did an amputation there yesterday." I asked him what equipment they had and he said, "We've got no anaesthetic, nothing. If we are lucky we can find a bit of local brew and we can try and get them to take a big gulp of that before surgery." The ICRC as a matter of policy would not take on a hospital and equip it: they were trying to force the Government to do that.'
The cost of relief aid to Angola at the time was prohibitive because everything had to be transported by air. For the aid workers in Ganda this meant impossible decisions. 'Occasionally we would try to get someone on a plane, but if we couldn't, well, they'd just die. How do you choose? One woman comes up with a starving child that needs flying out and somebody else comes up with a kid that has just half a leg. We had to ask ourselves, "Which life is more worth saving?"'
In 1995 the United Nations estimated that 70,000 Angolans had undergone amputations. Probably a similar number had already died. The sorrow of Angola is reflected in different degrees in many parts of the world where these patient weapons are taking their toll.
Landmines do not only kill and maim, they terrorize and trap entire communities, they overburden medical systems with patients requiring expensive treatment and make reconstruction in peacetime difficult, dangerous and expensive. Refugees returning to their homelands fall casualty when in the rush of emotions they forget the hidden threat. Children pay for their curiosity, and their occupations, such as herding and fuel-gathering, can put them at greater risk. Cattle and wild animals get blown up searching for food. The earth itself pays when people forced off farmlands start relying on more fragile territories, it pays when huge sores erupt in its topsoil, when toxic materials start leaching from mines into the ecosystem.
In the next few months we may well see a widespread ban of sorts. A Canadian initiative has set a December deadline for a ban to cover production, trade, use and stockpiling. The Ottawa Process, as it is called, came about as a result of several factors. The failure of consensus politics on the issue is one of these. Another is that the world is already glutted with landmines, so that a ban would not seriously harm the arms trade (landmines currently account for just 0.5 per cent of world weapons production). Public protest on the issue, spearheaded by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, has forced politicians to take an almost human stance with numerous nations already putting restrictions on mines. In addition senior military staff have added their testimony: landmines, they claim, do not win battles and can kill friendly troops when battle lines change.
The Ottawa Process could result in like-minded nations committing themselves to a ban, without waiting for recalcitrant heavyweights like China and Russia. Those nations which have not committed themselves to a ban could then start to be stigmatized. At a conference in Brussels in June, 97 countries agreed to be part of the Ottawa Process, but the real test will come in Oslo in September when the wording of the treaty will be hammered out. Campaigning groups have been stressing that they would rather have a strong treaty without loopholes and fewer signatories than one with vague definitions that might entice nations interested in good PR. The politicking is in full swing, with the US and Australia attempting to move the discussion to the consensus-based UN Conference on Disarmament, a forum renowned for its inability to agree on anything.
While a successful conclusion to the Ottawa Process will be great news, it will cause scarcely a ripple in the wider debate on disarmament. The campaign to ban landmines has shied away from using the word 'disarmament'. Campaigners have insisted this is a 'humanitarian issue' (a phrase politicians can warm to); they feel they would have had too much to lose not least the support of their sympathetic generals by straying into pacifist territory. The anti-mines campaign remains decidedly single-issue, but there is no denying that the issue itself is gigantic.
The really hard work will begin after a ban is announced: making sure there are no exemptions, pushing for a rapid destruction of stockpiles, and, most importantly, raising more cash for demining and supporting mine-affected countries. Campaigners are calling for a 'polluter pays' principle to support demining, getting funding for this work out of the military rather than the development budget and getting those that have profited from the trade to pay up. The future progress of entire countries depends on demining.
Here Western politicians have a lot to learn. They talk continually of high-tech solutions to mine clearance: the truth is no gizmo can clear mines to acceptable standards. Flails used by the military to cut paths through mined areas cost around $350,000 each and they don't do the job completely. There is no way that a poor nation can view this as an answer. Demining by trained local people is the only solution: it provides jobs where they are desperately needed and the mines are reliably cleared.
Those disabled by mines could do with jobs, too. Some of these newly disabled people are finding work in orthopaedic clinics producing prostheses (artificial limbs) for others like themselves, others have gone into tailoring uniforms for deminers, while some have become deminers themselves. They are the lucky few. In Cambodia losing a limb means being unable to work in a rice paddy; in Angola mutilados are considered useless; in Afghanistan the word for a person with disabilities translates as 'defective'. The few resources available usually go first to disabled ex-soldiers. In Angola and Mozambique many still carry guns and can talk louder.
For all too many other people there has been nothing. They hide for shame or beg in desperation, they find it difficult to get or keep partners. Still others have been abandoned by their families, who have been forced by sheer poverty into an act unthinkable in most traditional societies.
There is no escaping the central fact about landmines what they do to people. This is something none of the politicians should lose sight of as they deliberate on a ban, as they fly to their conferences around the world. As for those who are still manufacturing them, they might spare a thought for the words of Sadozai, a 50-year-old Afghan woman who lost her right leg to a mine. 'I would like to force them [mine-producers] to step on one of their own mines, in order to know what a gift they have given to society.'*
Ken Rutherford's testimony was provided by Landmine Survivors Network. Sharbat Khan and Sadozai's testimonies came from the ICRC.
1 ICRC, Anti-personnel Mines: an overview, 1996.
Copy Right New Internationalist Magazine 1997
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7