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Landmines: A Deadly Legacy - Abilities Canada - Abilities Magazine

Long after a war is over, land mines continue to kill and maim – and most of the victims are civilians. The prevalence of land mines in war-torn regions has been recognized for decades. In total, 60 countries have serious mine problems, and 120 countries have unexploded ordnance (UXO), potentially lethal artillery shells. Since 1975, land mines have killed or injured more than one million people worldwide, 90 per cent of them civilians.

Most mines are laid during wartime, and experts claim the oldest active mines were laid during World War II. Since then, armies and terrorist groups have continued to use mines, as have people defending themselves from genocidal regimes (as in Cambodia). Surprisingly, mines have also been laid during peacetime by farmers attempting to keep poachers away from their crops.

In some regions, accidents increase post-conflict when refugees return home to find that mines have been planted on their property, says James Lawrence, deputy director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM/WRA). Not only has the land been polluted and violated, but the lives of entire families are at risk. “In Lebanon, I’ve seen children tethered to the back porch, because 30 metres away is a minefield,” says Lawrence.

People who depend on income from growing crops must consider whether attempting to remove mines from their fields presents an acceptable risk. Law- rence claims it’s a decision many farmers have to make daily.

Colin King, an internationally recognized land-mine expert and UXO-disposal consultant, says the presence of land mines presents a multitude of problems for citizens and removal specialists. For starters, there is a wide variety of mines and a range of environments in which mines are placed.

Anti-personnel blast mines are the most notorious. They tend to be pressure-operated and have limited range, often destroying the victim’s foot or leg. Fragmentation mines, which may be mounted on stakes or jump out of the ground, are designed to kill several people and are usually well hidden. Victims frequently die, if not from the direct impact of the explosion, then because they can’t access medical care.

Anti-tank mines (large metal, plastic or wooden-box mines laid on or under roads) contain, on average, 20 pounds of explosives. Although they are generally ignored as a threat to civilians, their simple pressure fuses are unable to distinguish between a military
vehicle and a civilian car, ox cart or horse.

Unexploded ordnance (UXO) ranges from sub-munitions and artillery shells to aircraft bombs and missiles. Huge numbers of accidents are caused by UXO, most tragically when children find the small duds and bring them home to play with.

Clearance is being addressed one minefield at a time, but a legacy of destruction and death remains. Here are some examples: In 1974, Angola was the top coffee producer in Africa, and the fourth-largest producer in the world. Today, seven million land mines remain from the country’s civil war, which ended in 2002. If the land is not demined, farmers cannot grow crops such as coffee and bananas. Now, the country exports less than two per cent of Africa’s coffee crop. In Ethiopia, land mines claim three or four victims per month.

In 2005, Colombians suffered more land-mine incidents than any other country – in 2007, three victims each day. The government believes many incidents go unreported, because people from rural areas never reach medical facilities, where data is collected. According to Daniela Zuluaga of the Colombian Anti-personnel Mines Observatory, many mines are improvised from pop cans or footballs, and thus are attractive to children.

In Laos, 58 per cent of accident victims are children. Fifteen of 18 provinces remain contaminated by UXO – mainly cluster munitions – left over from the Vietnam War. The United Nations sees coffee as the main vehicle for economic development, but land mines and UXO create an impenetrable barrier.

Rwanda has a highly successful demining program. Still, land-mine victim statistics are incomplete for Rwanda. According to the Mine Action Information Center website, the government neither restricts access to farmlands/minefields, nor provides support to victims of land mines and UXO.

Landmine Monitor estimates 1,000 land-mine accidents per year in Vietnam. Seventy per cent occur while people are working, often because farmers can’t wait for someone to clear the mines from their land.

King says that until recently, humanitarian aid organizations lacked funding to adequately address the issue of victim assistance. “The war is being won against land mines, but the legacy is left in land-mine victims...”

Survivors suffer physical, social and financial effects of losing a limb. Because having a disability traditionally has been associated with spiritual evil, many people in developing nations hide family members with disabilities for fear of social stigma. There is little
social support. Many nations struggle to provide services that we in North America take for granted.

Despite the horrifying situation, there is hope. For example, according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of State, in 2006 Macedonia was declared free from the humanitarian impact of land mines and explosive remnants of war (“impact free”), and the last “hidden killers” have finally been cleared from the heavily contaminated northern regions of Mozambique. In 2007, the annual number of reported casualties from land mines and explosive remnants of war worldwide decreased to 5,751, down sharply from approximately 26,000 just four years prior.

In Nicaragua, 724 land-mine and UXO casualties were reported between 1980 and 2004. The UN Development Programme espouses capacity building as the key to sustainable human progress. Today, thanks to the work of several organizations, Nicaragua is on the road to recovery.

In 1997, The Polus Center for Social & Economic Development began forming locally based prosthetic outreach centres in Nicaragua (later expanding throughout Central America). The organization also worked with Dean’s Beans Fair-Trade Coffee to create a fully accessible café in downtown Leon, Nicaragua.

As a non-profit organization with nearly 30 years of experience creating opportunities for disenfranchised individuals, The Polus Center empowers people with disabilities in forgotten or neglected regions to build infrastructure in their own communities. Polus
utilizes holistic approaches to rehabilitation and provides social and economic opportunities for people with disabilities to participate fully in their communities. Polus’s activities in Central America led to the development of the Coffeelands Landmine Victims’ Trust, an organization that utilizes the Polus model to help victims in coffee-growing regions help themselves.

Felix Castillo was 21 years old when he lost his leg to a land mind during the war in NicaraguaFelix Castillo is one of those people. In March 2007, at a conference in Northampton, Mass., hosted by The Polus Center and the Coffeelands Landmine Victims’ Trust, Castillo shared his story of suffering and renewed optimism. He was only 21 when he lost his leg to a land mine during the war in Nicaragua. It took eight days to get medical attention. Had he received it earlier, he might not have lost so much
of his leg. Prior to the war, Castillo had been a farmer along with his father and siblings. After the injury, Castillo attempted suicide, but his platoon brothers stopped him. Although it was clear his leg would have to be amputated, his friends made him believe his life would be normal once he got a prosthetic. However, doctors at the rehabilitation facility told him that he would probably never walk again. They gave him crutches and a prosthetic, but did not teach him how to use them. Instead, officials at the facility trained Castillo to be an auto mechanic. He was determined, and within 15 days, he was walking.

After the war, he returned to Nicaragua to work in the coffee fields. For a while, he received a small pension from the government (the equivalent of $25 US). Eventually, he purchased a small coffee farm, and relied on the help of his 12-year-old son to harvest the crop. It was challenging for Castillo to gather coffee on rough terrain, in the heat, while holding a cane. Without funds to hire helpers, he was producing just enough to support his family, buy medicine and send his children to school. He dreamed of having the resources to expand his farm and buy a new artificial leg.

In July 2007, a few months after the conference, Castillo became the Coffeelands Landmine Victims’ Trust’s first beneficiary. His new prosthetic leg has enabled him to work more productively on his farm. Clear Path International has been operating in Vietnam since 2000 and serves approximately one-third of the country. The organization provides direct medical and social services to survivors and their families as well as equipment support to hospitals. Co-founder Martha Hathaway claims that although survey data is available for three of the 14 provinces it serves, Clear Path has
been denied access to this information. It maintains data on the 3,000 families it has served, and has expanded services into Afghanistan, Cambodia and the Thai-Burma border.


To teach soldiers and children to recognize land mines, expert Colin King uses playing cards with photos of mines and their elements. Soldiers pass boxes of cards to children in war-torn regions.

To educate children in Colombia, the United States Agency of International Devel- opment (USAID) and the U.S. Department of State have teamed with Warner Brothers to create a poster and public service announcement featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy
Duck, who talk to their friend Rith, a fictional Colom- bian boy who lost a leg to a land mine. The trio cautions children about handling unex- ploded mines and stresses the importance of accepting people with disabilities. (You can check them out online)
us aid

Traditional mine-risk education involves showing people pictures of clean, new mines, which they are unlikely to see in the field.  For this reason, the Mine Action Information Center at James Madison University in Virginia is conducting an investigation in Cambodia, sponsored by the PM/WRA, on the effects of aging on land mines. King, who is assisting with the study, estimates most of Cambodia’s mines were produced in the 1960s and ’70s and laid in the 1970s and ’80s. “The bottom line is that, for a wide variety of reasons, most mines probably have a far shorter life than many had thought.” He suspects that over time, most mines will degrade and become less dangerous. However, there are exceptions – some World War II mines are still functional – and the exact timescales for degradation are hard to predict. Environmental and weather conditions as well as materials used to construct the mines can make a huge difference.
If the study is successful, it will point the way to new research possibilities, thus allowing better prioritization of resources by governments and NGOs, including appropriate educational materials.

Boston-based World Education has been active in Laos since 1991, assisting refugees to repatriate and working to improve the country’s health and agriculture systems. Since 2005, with funding from the PM/WRA, World Education has explored ways to increase awareness of UXO, including using puppets and creative-writing activities to educate more than 165,000 children.

In 1992, Veterans for America (VFA, formerly Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation) joined forces with a network of NGOs to form the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The ICBL calls for an international ban on the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel land mines, and for increased international resources for mine clearance and victim assistance.

Dave Evans, who serves on the board of directors for VFA and helped create the ICBL, says that prior to the formation of the campaign, NGOs focused solely on rehabilitating land-mine survivors and aiding victims. With the advent of the ICBL,
prevention became a key action. In 1996, the ICBL participated in drafting the Ottawa Treaty, which bans anti-personnel mines. Representatives from 140 countries signed the treaty. It is a commitment to make all countries “mine-free” by 2010.

However, according to King, this target is unrealistic. “Signing [the Ottawa Treaty] didn’t get a single land mine out of the ground. By 2010, the key term should be ‘mine-safe.’ As a result of Ottawa, mines became a dirty word, but anti-tank mines were not even addressed.”

Twelve years after the creation of the treaty, there are still 156 member states and 39 states outside the treaty, including two signatories that have not yet ratified, according to ICBL’s database. In addition, King says, there is a stockpile of mines available
to others who are inclined to use them, and Evans says it’s safe to assume the non-signatory countries may also be stockpiling mines. Still, the convention did have some positive ramifications: Production, trade and use of mines has virtually ceased worldwide, including among many non-signatory nations, such as the U.S.

King praises the efforts of those working to make a difference for victims of land mines, but says the only way to prevent further tragedy is to use the following equation:
Clear mines + Ensure no more mines are laid + Educate all who may be affected = Mine-safe areas

Until mines are eradicated, safety education and victim support will be critical to those forced to live with their enduring threat.
To learn how you can help, read “Learn More,” below.


International Campaign to Ban Landmines – Landmine Monitor:


Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement:


Information Management & Mine Action Programs:


Canadian Landmine Foundation:




To Walk the Earth in Safety:


Leahy War Victims Fund:



The following NGOs rely on donations and grants to sustain their important work.

Clear Path International: www.cpi.org

The Polus Center for Social & Economic Development: www.poluscenter.org

Coffeelands Landmine Victims’ Trust: www.coffeelandstrust.org

World Education: www.worlded.org

Demining is like an archaeological dig: The work is slow, painstaking and tedious, with many necessary precautions. It is also dull – months can go by without a mine sighting.
A minefield can be situated in an old battlefield, beach, desert, jungle, wetland, mountainous area or even in a city, and each setting poses challenges for those trying to remove land mines.  Shifting sand is a problem in deserts and beaches – deminers must often create paths just to reach the mines. In Albania, workers don't know where to start because the region is so mountainous, and mines are often covered by vegetation. In Jordan, mines are washed to new locations by rushing waters. In other areas, water creates obstacles. Metal detectors are helpful, but not in urban areas or battlefields, which are already littered with casings and other metal. Training for deminers is thorough, and the pay is good. “Nowadays, these people are not cannon fodder, placed in the field,” stresses land-mine expert Colin King. U.S. troops are far more likely to get killed in Iraq than a deminer is in Cambodia.  Several organizations are working to resolve the global land-mine crisis. For example, in 1999, the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA), in partnership with the UN and Ted Turner's Better World Fund, created the

Adopt-A- Minefield campaign (www.landmines.org), which aims to clear minefields, help victims, and raise awareness.

Source: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Abilities Magazine.
by Hélèna Katz