WASHINGTON — THE six-year-old boy from northern Somalia said that the object lying on the road near his home resembled the plastic top of a thermos bottle. He picked it up - and the explosion of a small antipersonnel mine instantly blinded him and wounded his hand.
Praing Chhoeun, a middle-aged Cambodian farmer, stepped on a mine when taking her cattle out to forage in a village field. The weapon was planted near a well-trod path. ``I had always worried about stepping on one,'' Ms. Chhoeun told investigators from the group Human Rights Watch (HRW), ``but then the cattle had to be grazed.''
After stepping on a mine an Angolan villager named Maria lost a leg, and with it, perhaps, her future. Her husband left her after the injury, and now she ekes out a living selling vegetables in town. ``It is a difficult life, because I can't do all I need to do,'' she told investigators.
All over the developing world, land mines have become a daily threat to civilian life. Scattered quickly in the heat of bitter conflicts, often near rural population centers and fields, they remain buried for years - ``a weapon of mass destruction in slow motion,'' according to Kenneth Anderson, director of HRW's Arms Project in New York.
A new report by HRW and the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights estimates the threat at 100 million mines in place, directly affecting about one-third of the world's developing nations. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians become casualties of these mines each month.
These cheap, deadly weapons should be banned, according to HRW. They are ``just as indiscriminate and inhumane as chemical weapons,'' Mr. Anderson says.
The most heavily infested country is Afghanistan, according to the study, with 9 million to 10 million mines remaining uncleared from the bitter fighting between Soviets and anticommunist mujahideen. Angola has some 9 million mines. Iraq has laid some 5 million to 10 million mines to combat its own Kurdish and Shiite rebels; about 5 million to 7 million Iraqi-laid mines lie unexploded in Kuwait.
Other heavily mined countries, according to report estimates, include Cambodia (4-7 million), Bosnia (1-1.7 million), and Somalia (1-1.5 million).
While they retain narrow military uses, mines are now often employed as strategic weapons of terror against civilian populations. In the late 1980s in Somalia, for instance, troops of the now-ousted dictator, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, would deliberately mine civilian homes. One favored tactic was to unearth valuables residents had buried in dirt floors before fleeing advancing troops. The goods were stolen and replaced by mines - to injure or kill anyone trying to retrieve possessions.
Land mines have rendered whole regions uninhabitable. In southeast Angola, the fertile Mavinga valley is largely abandoned, says HRW, because of the many mines laid during fighting between the Angolan government and Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels.
The biggest producers of land mines in recent years have been China, Italy, and the former Soviet Union, says the report. With unit prices sometimes as low as $3 a weapon, sales competition can be intense. Italian firms boast of plastic mines produced in custom colors to blend into any environment.
Pakistan's state-owned Pakistan Ordnance Factory pushes its own special, the $6.75 P4 Mk.2 mine, by pointing out that it is calibrated to maim, not kill - thus increasing the logistical burden of an enemy's health care.
The annual mine trade is worth $50 million to $100 million, according to HRW. Its report urges countries to pass laws regulating their own mine production and to work with the UN toward the goal of a total ban.
If nothing else, the world should provide more mine-clearance aid for affected countries, says HRW, as it can cost 10 times as much to deactivate a mine as it does to lay it.