Rooting out landmines — a worthy but laborious cause
"The gift that keeps on giving" is one of those catchphrases which seems to have been around forever, but which actually dates back to 1924 when it was used to sell the new-fangled gramophone. It lends itself to a wide variety of situations and even became the title of a pop song first made public on Christmas Day five years ago. You can add one more meaning - far from benign and which describes one of the most diabolical devices ever invented.
According to news agency reports, just last week a five-year-old girl died in a village in south-eastern Colombia and five of her young playmates were injured as they played with what they thought was a ball they had found. It was no ball, but rather, a hand grenade. She was one of 54 Colombians killed so far this year from landmines and unexploded ordnance. Colombia has the dubious distinction of having the second highest rate of casualties from landmines in the world. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines says only Afghanistan has more.
A report from Bogota this week paints a grim picture about the toll landmines have taken in Colombia in the past two decades - 10,000. The government says two rebel groups which have played havoc in Colombia for almost half a century are to blame for the thousands of mines and other unexploded ordnance which litter the lush country some 800 kilometres south of Portland Point. The government began gathering statistics in 1990, and its figures show that since then, 6222 members of the official armed forces and 3779 civilians - 968 of them children - have been killed or maimed by exploding mines.
Members of the main rebel group - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish initials FARC) and the much smaller National Liberation Army - often sow mines in the areas around military bases and the tracts of jungle and rural areas where they operate. Some rebels who produce cocaine to finance their operations also use the devices as protection around the fields where they grow the coca plants. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which accuses FARC of using child soldiers to transport and distribute anti-personnel mines, is blunt in its assessment: "FARC is probably the most prolific current user of anti-personnel mines among rebel groups anywhere in the world."
But there is some light at the end of this long, deadly tunnel. The government and FARC rebels are preparing to sit down for talks in Oslo, Norway, in just over a week, and if they emerge with an agreement, the poor battered country will likely witness for the first time a decline in the number of victims and perhaps even a sustained effort to get rid of the dreaded devices. It is quite a daunting task, though - the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines estimates that if the conflict were to end right away, it would take at least 10 years to clear the estimated 100,000 explosives in the country.
The recent Paralympic Games in London included a number of landmine survivors, all of whom were from countries with large numbers of mines - places like Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Turkey. Afghanistan's explosive crop goes back some 30 years, when the Soviet Union invaded and remained almost 10 years. The countryside was ravaged by constant exchanges of heavy weapons fire between Soviet forces and the opposing Mujahideen guerrillas. The Soviet forces seeded the place with a variety of landmines, including small ones dropped from aircraft. They resemble innocent toys and were often picked up by curious children, with deadly results.
There are places in the world where mines sown long ago are still active. In the 1940s, British and German armies battling in northern Africa sowed countless mines in a stretch of territory from Egypt through Libya to Tunisia. Most have been removed, but every now and then one explodes as a person stumbles unknowingly into a forgotten minefield. Old ordnance from World War I goes off occasionally in parts of France and Belgium. The wars which ravaged many parts of Africa over the past half-century also continue to pass on their nasty gifts - in Mozambique, Somalia, Western Sahara and Congo.
Cambodians continue to suffer blown-off legs from some of the seven million mines sown during a 12-year civil war which ended in 1991. The southeast Asian country is said to have the highest percentage of disabled people in the world. Not long after that conflict ended, violence erupted in the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and lasted three years. The fighting was extremely brutal, and some two million mines were planted in its forests, fields and orchards. In some places you still can't take a stroll in the woods, and deer pay with their life when tromping on a mine.
Our part of the world also has its share of this undesirable legacy. There are an estimated 100,000 landmines in Central America, mostly in Nicaragua. These are a legacy of Ronald Reagan's campaign to destabilise the revolutionary government led by Daniel Ortega. Using the proceeds of illegal arms trading with Iran, Reagan shunted money to the Contras, a group opposing the Sandinista revolution, and sowed mines in areas along Nicaragua's borders with Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica. An OAS programme has removed many of these explosives, but some still remain and exact their toll from time to time. Minefields also exist in Cuba, in the stretch of no-man's-land around the US Navy base at Guantanamo in the eastern end of the island.
There are bright spots. At a site where, according to tradition, Jesus was baptised, tourists can now wade in the Jordan River which just a few years ago was off-limits because of mines. Over the years Jordan's border with Israel and Syria had been seeded with mines, but in a process which began some dozen years ago after a peace treaty with Israel, the small Arab nation began removing the mines. The task was completed six months ago, after Jordan cleared 270,000 devices from 126 minefields. Some of the de-mined areas are once again producing crops.
A coalition of non-governmental organisations began campaigning in the 1990s to ban landmines and held a crucial meeting in Canada's capital city in 1996 to work out strategy. Canada's foreign minister at the time, Lloyd Axworthy, gave the closing address, and instead of congratulating the participants for their work, he challenged the world to go back to Ottawa within a year to sign an international treaty against anti-personnel mines.
The group went to work and drafted a treaty which was adopted in Oslo, Norway, in September 1997 and signed by 122 states three months later in Ottawa. It's now been signed by 155 countries and ratified by 153. Forty others, including China, Cuba, India, Israel, Morocco, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka and the United States have not signed. But many have stopped producing anti-personnel mines and some have even destroyed existing stocks.
Locating and destroying mines is an expensive and time-consuming process, which is one reason so many remain in the ground. But, it appears, this is one of the few of humanity's inhumane and disastrous behaviours which is on the decline.