A crowd of mutilados - Portuguese for the mutilated ones - gathered outside the CARE office in Menongue, Angola. Among them were a few with prosthetic limbs, mostly ill-fitting. As for the rest of the legless, they got around on crutches that looked like found objects.
Several people in the crowd had lost an arm; one person was missing both. Another man had the requisite number of arms and legs, but no hands.
These were survivors of land mines. Unlike the Clinton administration, which chose last week not to sign along with 100 other countries a treaty banning land mines, the mutilados can't afford to wait 19 years to begin living without fear of their next step. (The US, which will continue to use land mines for troop security, had pushed for implementation formulas that would have delayed a total ban for 19 years.)
Missing from the group were the women - except one, a young woman, her prosthetic leg covered to the knee with a dingy white sock. As is commonly the case with women who've survived the trauma and mutilation of land mine explosions, her family still depends heavily on her. With water to fetch, meals to prepare, and children and elders to care for, she'd found the time to come, along with 50 men that day last month. They'd heard that a stranger from America was there to talk with them about their lives and their future.
Angola is twice the size of Texas, yet within its 481,000 square miles are an estimated 15 million-plus land mines, about 1.5 mines for each person. Even half that in the US would be seen as a crisis of staggering size.
Angola's mines are a cold-war legacy that many choose to forget. They were laid during the decades of superpower-supported civil war that followed Angola's independence from Portugal. Nearly 77,000 of Angola's citizens are mutilados, 20 years later.
I spoke first with Domingas Manuela, the sole mutilada. A pretty 25-year-old who looks more like 16, Domingas's face was calm, even a little wistful, as she told me about her life. She stepped on a mine in 1992 on her way to buy cassavas for her family. Abandoned by her husband after her injury and no longer able to farm her own field, she still suffers from grief and shock.
Her plans to provide for her parents and children have been turned upside down. Still, she tries to contribute to the household, buying oil to sell in the market. Oil is heavy, so she makes many trips on her prosthetic leg, and earns just enough to survive.
Joao Baptista worked at a local hospital for 20 years before he was drafted as a military nurse. One day as he accompanied an injured soldier to find medical treatment, the car ran over a mine, killing the driver and injuring Joao's legs. After a grueling 50-mile journey, his colleagues finally got him to doctors who could amputate both legs and save his life.
Joao's desire to help others was not diminished. Once able, he returned to work in the hospital and has since been made the elder of his community. Yet, now at 52, his injuries make it difficult for him to earn a living.
These two are among nearly 21,000 mutilados in the Cuando Cubango province of Angola. Their tragedy is compounded by the fear that the same thing can happen at any time to their friends and loved ones. Fenced in by land mines, the people of Menongue struggle to see the future. Until the mines are gone they can't pass on their traditional livelihoods, rebuild their country, or pause to dream.
As I waited at the airstrip to leave, I caught sight of a young mutilado, a donated Nike sneaker on his prosthetic foot. He was shy, but I managed to learn that Pedro is 10 years old, an orphan, and he lost his leg in a land mine explosion. I saw behind his shy gaze a look of keen intelligence, reminding me of my 14-year-old daughter. But, land mines take an irredeemable toll on the next generation, which could shape a brighter future for Angola.
Some US military experts contend that antipersonnel mines are a "combat multiplier," freeing our forces for other operations. For me, two things are certain - one, land mines are multipliers of misery for hundreds of thousands of innocents, turning communities into theaters of war long after the combat is over; and, two, this is a pivotal moment for the establishment of a new international standard of decency. This standard will have no place for land mines.
The Clinton administration said it would go to Oslo to seek a quick ban on this terror. By seeking special status in its demands for exceptions, the US risked diluting, even killing, the possibility of a treaty of any value. The mutilados of today and tomorrow seemed far from Clinton's mind as his delegates pushed to accommodate Pentagon demands to exempt antipersonnel mines on the Korean Peninsula, continue using "smart" mines, and allow a loophole through which to cop out if expedient.
There is still time for the US to join the 100 nations that will sign the treaty in December. It is unfortunate that the president can't meet the mutilados himself.
Talking with them, the policy arguments fade and one is left staring into wounded eyes. Joao, Domingas, and the others shared their experiences with me, understanding that I'd convey their words as a testimony of the powerless to those who have the power - and who share in the moral responsibility - to eradicate the scourge of land mines.
* Clarice Taylor works in the Washington office of CARE. The Atlanta-based relief organization works in 63 countries, 39 of which have land mines.