The Legacy of Land Mines

In places like Angola, Cambodia, and Bosnia, millions of land mines perpetuate an era of violence, even after the guns are silent

ANGOLA'S civil war is once again winding to a close under the supervision of a UN peacekeeping force and the effective diplomacy of the international community, led by the United States. But, because of the scourge of land mines, Angola's war is not really over.

Millions of land mines litter Angola, and even during cease-fire they cause death and destruction every day. In fields, schoolyards, and by the side of the road, land mines strike with a terrible randomness and brutal efficiency. Usually planted just inches below the earth's surface, antipersonnel mines are set off by a single footstep - whether that foot belongs to a soldier, a mother, or an innocent child. Some mines commonly known as "toe-tappers" cost less than $3 to manufacture and are designed to blow off a foot.

The conventions of war dictate that the placement of land mines should be mapped so that their destructive force can later be safely found and removed. But war - especially civil war - rarely bows to convention. Over a period of 20 years, both sides in Angola's civil war planted nearly 50 varieties of mines throughout the country. These land mines were exported to Angola from a host of countries: Hungary, Cuba, China, South Africa, and the United States. The conflict in Angola is over, but the mines remain active and waiting.

The problems of removal

Mines are cheap, easy to produce, and last several decades. Moreover, they are extraordinarily painstaking to remove. Metal detectors are often of little use, either because the mines are predominantly plastic or the ground is so rich with shrapnel, shell casings, and other types of metal. As a result, mines are usually removed by hand, in an excruciating inch-by-inch search-and-removal process. The result is that a mine that costs only $3 to produce costs as much as $1,000 to find and remove.

Expert mine removers consider clearing a 20-by-20-foot area in an entire day a heroic effort; imagine the challenge involved in clearing what experts estimate could be as many as 20 million mines from Angola's landscape. Beyond a certain point, the numbers are inconsequential, for if the land where they are suspected to lie is not cleared, it cannot be used. So, even if half as many mines cover Angola, just as much work needs to be done.

Economic growth and agricultural development are nearly impossible when mines are suspected. People cannot plant crops, refugees cannot return home, and children cannot attend schools.

An estimated 70,000 Angolans now live without one or more limbs, and many more than that have died. At a prosthetics center in the capital city of Luanda, I saw dozens of men watching the Africa Cup championship soccer game on television as they waited for their new legs and feet to be manufactured.

Humanitarian efforts

To begin to remedy this dire situation, international donors have pledged $15 million, nearly 40 percent of which comes from a joint US government effort led by the Departments of State and Defense and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). This funding supports technical assistance to train thousands of former soldiers to de-mine the land. Programs also train local citizens in land mine awareness and survey skills.

Nonprofit groups such as Halo Trust (British), Norwegian People's Aid, and Mines Advisory Group (British) have been joined in this work by private US-based nongovernmental organizations funded by USAID including Save the Children, Africare, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and CARE. A few years ago, these groups would have been shocked at the suggestions that they would be engaged in demining. Today, it is seen as an essential humanitarian endeavor.

The problem of land mines is not only a crisis in Angola. In Bosnia, Mozambique, Cambodia, Nicaragua, and Rwanda, millions of mines patiently await their victims.

Steps taken in Washington

In February of this year, President Clinton signed into law legislation sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Rep. Lane Evans (D) of Illinois to impose a moratorium on the sale and export of land mines. This legislation is a ground-breaking effort to reverse the deadly trend that has placed an estimated 100 million uncleared mines worldwide. I can only hope that this is but a first step in eliminating a weapon that Senator Leahy has characterized as the "Saturday night special of warfare."

Senior officials at the Pentagon just announced that they will review the US military's policy on land mines, and I am hopeful that the United States will join neighboring Canada in banning the use of antipersonnel land mines.

I believe the US has a moral obligation to work toward preventing any further use of a weapon that selects its victims so indiscriminately. Perhaps in the future we can satisfy ourselves that once a war is over, children will not continue to be added to its list of victims.

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