Printer Friendly

Deadly relics: the global land mine plague.

As a little boy in the Gaza province of Mozambique, Luis dreamed of being famous. He wanted to be a soccer star, to see the world, and to help build the future of his beloved Mozambique, the pearl of the southern African nations. So each day he practiced and played, on and on into the dark hours of the early tropical night, until his mother would call him into their hut. His father had been a soccer player, and so had his three brothers, but none of them had ever become a star. But Luis was faster, stronger, and better at the game than all of them, so he had the right to dream his dreams.

Mozambique, in those days, was involved in an immensely cruel and seemingly endless war. As far back as Luis could remember, his country had been fighting: first against the Portuguese, then against the Rhodesians and the South Africans, and sometimes against the Russians, but also--and very often--against itself. Some Mozambicans received weapons, supplies, and training from the Rhodesians and the South Africans. This group was called the Renamo, and it attacked government installations and communal settlements like the one in Gaza where Luis lived.

The fighters of the Renamo had a well-earned reputation for brutality and were considered by many Mozambicans to be little more than gangsters. They disrupted internal transportation systems. They blocked roads and railways, raided villages and set them on fire, and stole chickens and pigs. Often they raped and kidnapped children and taught them how to fight. Sometimes they even forced them to kill their own parents and made them drink their blood. The Renamo employed its terror tactics, which included both selective killing and wholesale slaughter, to frighten people away from supporting the government. In the process, it had created a massive refugee problem, perhaps the most serious one in the world.

"They were essentially bandits," Luis now says reflectively. "They have been responsible for the depredations in the rural areas and operate freely in the chaos of the countryside."

The Renamo fought the Frelimo, the Frelimo, the armed forces of the government, whom Luis understood were no angels either--but maybe, just maybe, a little better than the Renamo. After all, the Frelimo was backed by the Russians; they were socialists and that stood for more justice, more health care and education, and less difference between the classes. Or so they said.

Luis knew that in 1980, when he joined the Frelimo, his dreams of becoming a soccer star were over. He knew this because the war ended most dreams. He was only 18 then. That was 16 years ago.

On his very first day with the Frelimo, Luis was put to work laying mines. He cannot remember asking why he, a complete novice, should have been handling these deadly devices, nor what the military purpose was in laying them. Nor can he remember, 16 years later, exactly where he laid them or how many. He thought that, as soon as they were buried under the long, hard tropical grass, they would be forgotten--at least until some Renamo fighter stepped on them.

And it certainly never occurred to him that those mines would still be in place, armed and deadly and waiting to explode, long after the fighting had ended.

In December 1990, a peace treaty was signed between the Frelimo and the Renamo. It lasted a couple of days, and then the fighting resumed. This led to more negotiations and more fighting. In October 1992, the Renamo finally agreed to recognize the Frelimo as the constitutional government: in December 1992, peace came to Mozambique. And it was eight months into the peace when Luis, now a civilian, went into the forest to chop wood and lost his leg to a land mine.

It happened on August 13, 1993, close to Provincial Road Number 10, some 35 miles south of Maputo, the capital. Luis remembers the events of that day in vivid and horrific detail. He says it was near the end of the rainy season; he was on his way with a friend to cut wood so that he could build his family a new home. He also needed wood so that Alda, his wife, could cook the family a meal.

Luis and his friend were wading through the shallow waters of a rice field when suddenly they heard a bang. At first, Luis didn't feel a thing; he even remembers wondering, for a split second, if his friend had stepped on a mine. Then a gurgling sound came from the water. Luis looked down. The water was colored red. It was then he realized his left leg wasn't there any more.

Luis almost lost consciousness; his friend, panic stricken, turned and started to run, then realized what had happened and came to an abrupt halt. Thanks to his days in the army, Luis knew that he had to tie the stump off immediately in order to stem the bleeding. He ripped off a piece of his shirt and created a tourniquet and called to his friend to get help.

It took Luis' friend nearly an hour to work his way out of the minefield, using a stick to probe the ground ahead of him every step of the way. In that time, he came across a second mine--a little Chinese T-72, a plastic cylinder not much bigger than a man's first, with thirty grams of explosives packed into a military-green casing to make it more difficult to detect in tropical-grass areas. (Mozambicans call these mines frogs because of their color and the noise they make just before exploding.)

Half an hour later, the friend returned with help from the village. It took them another 30 minutes to clear a path through the minefield and drag Luis ashore. Once they returned to the village, someone came up with the idea of going to Boane to get help. Boane was a three-hour walk--but at least there was a car there, and the car could get Luis to an ambulance and the ambulance could take him to the Central Hospital in Maputo.

It wasn't until the following morning that Luis finally reached the medical facility. Within the hour, surgeons had amputated his left leg above the knee. Luis knew then that his life had changed forever. For one thing, he would never play soccer again.

Dr. Mack is a Red Cross surgeon who worked in Afghanistan and Rwanda before coming to Mozambique. He still remembers Luis very well. "One of his problems was that he had lost very much blood and an awful lot of mine mud had to be removed. We tried to save the right leg and had to clear all the affected spots. People who step on a mine lose one leg or foot at least," he said, "but the mine mud very easily enters the other leg. That other leg has to be saved at all costs. If not, the victims are completely lost in a Third World country."

Anti-personnel mines--the kind of device that Luis lost his leg to--generally do not kill more than 30 percent of their victims. Nor are they designed to; their primary purpose is to inflict damage and to instill a sense of terror. "Strategically, the psychological effect of a mine is more efficient and important than removing a soldier from the battlefield," says Tom Gowans, a mine-removal expert who works for Halo Trust in Quilimane, Mozambique. "A soldier who loses a foot or a leg or who suffers from severe internal bleeding has to be carried away by at least two other soldiers to receive medical care and attention. The rest of the soldiers are greatly affected in terms of morale. That is the perverse logic behind the use of mines."

Halo Trust is a London-based humanitarian mine-clearance organization hired by the United Nations to conduct a nationwide assessment of Mozambique's land-mine problem. The organization began working in early 1994 in the Maputo and Tete provinces. Six teams are being sent out with questionnaires to every district and municipality in an attempt to draw up a more scientific assessment of the worst areas for mines. This information is then put into a database and plotted onto maps which are distributed to nongovernmental organizations like Save the Children, Doctors without Frontiers, and the Red Cross.

As I speak with Gowans, a call comes over his mobile receiver. A good 150 miles up the provincial road toward Cariwa, his people have found a group of villagers who know where some land mines are located. He invites me along to watch the removal.

The provincial road is in poor condition, and many bridges have been destroyed. Upon arriving at the village, I meet two members of Gowans' team--one from England and the other from New Zealand. The village itself is small and, in the days of the Portuguese, must have been very beautiful. There are six or seven colonial brick homes in which Ernest Hemingway would have felt right at home. The houses are all gutted now, with war slogans displayed along their walls: "Long live the revolution!" "Socialism or death!" "Welcome, Fidel!"

The Brit comes out of his landrover carrying two maps of the area. According to the villagers, he tells us, this is where a land mine is supposed to be. As he points its location out to us, I notice that the pinky and ring finger of his left hand are missing. "Mind you," he says, "you are now in a minefield." Two marked lanes some 300 feet long extend to the side of one of the houses. In a very carefully dug hole, I see a small, rusty, grenadelike bomb that must have been placed there during the war. The removal team gingerly attaches electric wires to it and, a few minutes later, my type recorder registers the explosion.

About a hundred villagers sit and watch the operation from the porch of the only store in town. A limping man approaches us and cries out that he has served in the army all these years and has become no more than a disabled beggar. That is not what life had in mind when he was created, he says: "I gave my youth and this is what I get in return? Why can't the government just send me back to my mother? She will take care of me. I just want to go home!"

Gowans tries to explain that we are there only to remove the mines. The limping man insists that we must help, since the government doesn't care. "You people have been sent to give aid to us," he argues desperately, "to help us. If you don't help, we have no one else to go to!"

But there is nothing that any of us can do for him.

In the days of the civil war, Mozambique was a very poor country. It still is today. In fact, according to the World Bank, Mozambique is even poorer today than it was during the war years; per capita income has actually fallen from $80 to $60 a year, making it the poorest nation on earth. And of every 1,000 children who are born in Mozambique, 300 die before they reach the age of five--another world record.

To understand how the land mines got to a country like Mozambique in the first place, it is not enough to point an accusing finger at the Renamo or the Frelimo--or even at the First World corporations which turn a tidy profit from the manufacture and sale of these devices. For the story of land mines is also the story of human inventiveness, especially when it comes to dealing out death and destruction upon other members of our species. It is the dark, disturbing underside of our much-celebrated technological progress.

Although land mines are a creation of the twentieth century, some military historians credit the Romans with pioneering a primitive version of minefields, laying salt on the farmlands of Carthage to prohibit their use for decades. (The Romans also developed steel bullets which were fired from slingshots placed in front of the enemy's horses.)

It wasn't until the First World War, however, that the German war industry developed the land mine as we now know it in order to stop the tanks of the Allies from getting into Germany through the Ardennes. The realization that mines could also be used to sow death and terror among an advanceing infantry led to the invention of the anti-personnel mine.

During World War II, an estimated 300 million anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were laid by the Axis and Allied powers combined. Today, a territory of some 500,000 square miles in northern Africa is still infested by mines left over from that war alone. In the 1960s, a new generation of mines was developed that could be laid in any chosen territory by "sowing" them from a plane or helicopter. Today, we have a third generation of "smart" mines, delivered by the hundreds from cannons, rockets, or aircraft, which are equipped with acoustic and infrared sensors and can arm and tigger themselves after having been instructed by a computer.

"In the old days," says Andre Milloret, head of the United Nations Organization Mozambique in Maputo, "mines were laid to stop and divert the enemy. But with improving technology, manufacturers have stressed their destructive potential. It used to be science fiction, but it is a horrible truth today: this new generation of land mines is able to `look for' its enemy and operate autonomously." Milloret also observes that, in today's wars, mines are not only being laid in battlefields but also around houses, churches, drinking wells, and even in school-yards.

"It is appaling," says Patrick Blagden, a British de-mining expert based in New York City. "It is utterly appalling what we are doing. Land mines are first produced against substantial costs, then sold and distributed; then they lay there dormant until someone finally steps on them. It is a safe bet to say that, during the daylight hours of every day of every week of every month of every year, someone is maimed or killed by a land mine every 15 minutes." (For the record, the official figure, according to such organizations as the United Nations and the International Red Cross, is 2,000 victims every month.)

Blagden himself has removed about 500,000 land mines in Kuwait in 1991 and 1992. He knows there are an estimated 110 million active land mines scattered throughout some 60 countries and at least 100 million more still in the planet's arsenals. Many producer nations--including Russia, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Canada, and the United States--will often throw in a shipment of land mines as a bonus when some Third World nation makes a hefty weapons purchase.

Blagden describes the use of land mines by these countries as a form of economic suicide. When you factor in the social and medical costs, the strain on already inadequate health-care systems, the loss of wage earners, and the inability to create revenue, either from agriculture or industry, because whole areas lie fallow once they are mined, the cost to these countries is enormous.

So, too, are the costs of removal. Blagden shows me a picture of his mine-removal team at work in a Cambodian rice field. Every single blade has to be cut by hand with a pair of scissors because the area is planted with mines that have tripwires attached to them. These are Valmara 69s from the Valsella Meccanotecnica factory in Italy, a socalled bounding fragmentation mine. Once the tripwire is snagged, the V-69 shoots into the air and explodes at waist level, riddling the immediate area--and anyone in it--with shrapnel. The V-69s are "intelligent" because they can "communicate" with one another: a single trip-wire can set off a whole string of mines.

Only after the grass has been meticulously cut can the real business of mine removal begin. De-miners go in on their knees and prod the soil 400 times per square meter. Using a metal detector is pointless, because in many parts of the world the soil contains high grades of iron ore. Then, too, many current anti-personnel mines are made primarily of plastic, with metal parts too small to be recognized by conventional detectors. Blagden estimates that de-mining costs anywhere between $300 and $1,000 per mine. This is because, unlike laying the mines, which can be done by a trainee like Luis on his first day in the military, de-mining requires the services of professionals who have to be trained, equipped, and insured. They incur travel and living expenses and have to be provided with backup and support.

But some mines, like the Chinese 72-A, are made chiefly of fiberglass and cost no more than $3 apiece. "Now, who is willing to poke around 400 times per square meter just to find a $3 mine?" Blagden wonders. Altogether, the total cost of removing the 110 million mines already in place could easily run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. No one knows how such a project could possibly be financed or even how long it would take--to say nothing of having to spend such an appalling sum of money cleaning up the deadly relics of past wars when it could have been far better spent on education, health care, housing, and food.

In the African nation of Angola, 20 years of war have left behind over 15 million land mines--at least one for every man, woman, and child in the country. No one knows exactly how many mines are buried in Mozambique, but current estimates run as high as 10 million.

"But is that really important to know?" Luis asks bitterly. "Since I stepped on one and lost my left leg, I know there is one less. When my wife, Alda, stepped on another one a few months later, I knew there were two less. And when my youngest daughter was killed by a land mine, I knew there were three less. I lost my child, a leg, and so did my wife. Since I am impaired, I can't get a job. I wanted to play soccer, and now I can't even watch a game properly. War is shit. Land mines are shit."

In April 1996, representatives of more than 50 nations met in Geneva, Switzerland, to debate a ban on land mines as part of a periodic review of the 1980 U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons. Anti-mine activists in the United States hoped to pressure the Clinton administration into joining a group of 24 nations calling for an immediate ban on anti-personnel mines. They were joined in their efforts by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which ran an ad in the New York Times demanding "Ban Land Mines Now." And at least a dozen retired U.S. generals, including former Joint Chiefs of Staff chair David Jones, Desert Storm commander Norman Schwarzkopf, and former NATO commander John Galvin, signed an open letter to President Clinton urging their ban.

The results have not been encouraging. The Clinton administration chose not to press for a ban in Geneva, under the disingenuous claim that "we can't change our demands at the eleventh hour." Instead, it offered a series of lukewarm amendments to the conventional-weapons accord: a requirement that anti-personnel mines be equipped to self-destruct after 30 days; a prohibition of the sale of land mines to nations involved in civil war; and (perhaps most bizarre) a rule that long-lived mines be used only in properly marked, fenced, and monitored areas.

The administration also proposed a series of stricter export controls, although, if recent history serves as any guide, this will be merely a paper deterrent. Late in 1991, for example, four executives of Valsella Meccanotecnica were prosecuted for the illegal sale and delivery of nine million land mines to Iraq for a payment of $180 million. Valsella never had an export license; an investigation showed that the order was shipped through a company in Singapore and that some of the land mines reached Mozambique.

The executives were found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Foek, Anton
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Previous Article:Physician-assisted suicide: "slippery slope" or civil right?
Next Article:Forgotten victims.

Related Articles
Back to the future.
What are relics worth?
Meet the people who make land mines.
TNT-sensing plastic exposes land mines.
Invisible Death.
The killing fields.
The Great Influenza: the Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.
Private donation of mine detecting dogs for Sri Lanka.
Kerry B. Collison, Indonesian Gold.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters