The Next Job: 110 Million Mines Already in the Ground

A Mine-Removal team funded by the United Nations recently came to this tiny Bosnian hamlet without enough of the small wooden stakes they use to mark areas cleared of land mines. So the villagers were asked to make some.

"Within five minutes, they had given me 300 stakes," says Sinisa, one of the team's supervisors, who declined to give his last name. The villagers were Muslims who had just returned nearly five years after being expelled by Bosnian Serb troops, who looted and booby-trapped their homes. The deminers, summoned after two villagers were killed by mines, were Bosnian Serbs.

Unfortunately, cooperation between former foes is rare in Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as in many other states awash in millions of antipersonnel land mines, weapons that can maim and kill decades after they are planted.

The treaty banning the use of the devices concluded in Oslo yesterday by more than 80 countries is aimed at halting the scourge. But while many experts praise the accord, they say that efforts to tackle the crisis are woefully inadequate.

Distrust between erstwhile enemies, such as that plaguing international efforts to rid Bosnia of an estimated 3 million mines, is just one of numerous obstacles. Others include serious shortages of resources and trained personnel, and the laying of new minefields.

Still another problem is a dearth of advanced demining technologies. For the most part, demining operations still depend on deminers using metal-detection systems developed during World War II and risking their lives pushing thin metal probes into the earth.

"The Oslo process is an extremely important part of the puzzle, but it's not the complete answer. It will deal with future land mines. The real problem exists now," says John MacInniss, a former Canadian general who heads demining programs in the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs.

Some experts suggest that in their exuberance to win the Oslo accord and thwart American efforts to weaken the treaty, ban supporters deflected attention from the enormity of the existing crisis.

"The question is at what point are we going to balance our concern about the arms-control component with the mine-clearance part," says John Parachini of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a security policy think tank in Washington.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle confronting governments and aid organizations sponsoring demining programs is the sheer size of the crisis.

There are currently an estimated 110 million land mines planted in ditches, homes, fields, and roads in 64 countries, the worst affected of which are among the world's poorest countries. The devices claim some 26,000 casualties a year - 8,000 of them children - and wreak billions of dollars of economic damage by blocking reconstruction, agricultural development, trade, and transportation.

The UN estimates that it would take decades and at least $33 billion - about $1,000 per mine - to eliminate the existing problem.

There are other costs as well. Treating and rehabilitating the tens of thousands of people who lose limbs to explosions is now put at some $750 million and rising.

Bosnia provides a prime example of the resource shortages and other numerous hurdles confronting international demining operations.

The return home of Bosnia's estimated 2 million refugees is a key requirement for the success of the US-brokered 1995 Dayton peace plan. But one of the main obstacles to returns is the slow pace of demining efforts, one of the largest of which is overseen by the UN.

The UN is estimating its demining needs for Bosnia at about $40 million. But since January 1996, it has received donations of only $9 million.

Using those resources, it has been able to train only 120 deminers out of a required 1,200.

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