Remnants of War: the Legacy of Landmines

10 people are killed or seriously injured from landmines everyday. The battles of yesterday are still creating tomorrow’s victims.

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Kolthida — a 27 year old girl from Cambodia — remains shy. Despite years of physiotherapy and counselling, the scars of war are obvious, but the ones that hurt most are hidden. She is one of Cambodia’s 40 000 amputees; all victims of Anti-personal-mines and explosive-remnants-of-war. Confined to a wheelchair, she is a striking image of courage and even defiance, but there is of course sadness in her eyes. Tasked with collecting firewood for her family, it was on one such trip at the age of 11 she crossed an unmarked glade and stepped on a landmine. Found by local rice farmers, she was rushed to hospital and thus begun a long process of healing; a word that does not convey the decades it takes for recovery to occur. This is the legacy left over after the collapse the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, but landmines are a scourge to many countries.

Yet, Cambodia has made amazing progress in tackling the problem. Indeed, who would have thought, back in the 1980’s Angkor Wat, the prestigious tourist attraction and temple, was once infested with them. In the last decades, successive governments have demined vast tracts of land, but also promoted the rights of disabled people on a national level, investing in resources and rehabilitation. Nevertheless the human cost, as well as the socioeconomic cost of the APMs is challenging to say the least.

Landmines are not meant to kill but rather maim. The problem is only 25% of APMs hit the intended target of soldiers. The other 75% hit civilians; more often than not, children.

Men who are shepherding sheep or tilling land, mothers collecting fuel, boys sowing sugarcane, girls carrying water supplies. All are unwitting victims of yesterdays battle. APMs are in fact, historical anachronisms on many levels, but they intrude on today’s world. Painstakingly difficult to detect, arduous to destroy, they are the hidden debt of war.

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However there is good news. Since 1991 the production, use, and casualty rates of APMs are radically declining. What was once the topic of Human Rights Groups alone, is now a cause championed internationally: The United Nations, World Health Organisation, transnational NGOs and charities worldwide have all played their part. The movement has in fact become so powerful, that individual governments have often been compelled by international pressure and global stigmatisation alone to desist from deploying, and stockpiling these weapons.

In 1997 the Ottawa Treaty was adopted by the UN and ready for signatories. In 1999 it became binding International Law. As of today, 162 countries have signed the treaty, the equivalent of 80% of world states.

In 1990 landmine fatalities stood at 20 000, today the number is 4000. In 1999, 108 countries stockpiled APMs in 2009 this figure is down to around 20. Globally tens of millions landmines have been destroyed.

Beside this, more than $4 000 000 000 has been invested in mine clearance and it is money well spent: 14 UN departments assist over 30 countries, and this is not to mention the work of national governments, NGOs and charities spread far and wide. The 5 Pillars of Mine Action are: Clearance, Education, Victim-Assistance, Advocacy, and Stockpile Destruction. This multifaceted and focused approach means progress has been made.

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Yet landmines are still innocuous and remain hidden both in deployment and production. According to ICBL 60 countries still have mine infested land and while 162 states have ratified the Ottawa Treaty, another 35 remain outside of jurisdiction; including Russia, China and the United States. Estimates vary, as to how many landmines are still hoarded in world’s weapon caches, but 50 000 000 is the commonly cited figure.

Beside this we now have hybrid weapons, which often cause more devastation than the originals. Perhaps the most infamous is the cluster bomb, still regularly deployed by armies across the globe. Likewise IEDs have recently been deployed in Afghanistan, and barrel-bombs unleashed in Syria. Aside the ethical considerations of such ‘weapons’ is the fact that they regularly fail to detonate. Meaning, like landmines, they becoming ‘unexploded ordnance.’

The picture is of course complex: Some countries use national policy to cover UN treaty. Other countries have disputed territory, or in the midst of civil war. Finally the process of demining terrain and destroying stockpiles, is expensive, complicated and often dangerous. Even when intentions are good, a country’s budget can only stretch so far.

Nevertheless it is a worthwhile investment. A world without the production, distribution and hoarding of landmines, is a world we all want to live in. One where children are safe and adults can go about their daily lives free from the threat of losing limbs. It is also world which can be held to account, for its actions during war time.

Clearance and stockpile destruction is not enough we want to bequeath a future intact for the next generation. This means promoting the rights of its disabled population, and creating statewide solutions to rehabilitation. For this reason the campaigning must continue.

Returning to Kolthida’s we know her life has been blighted by her disability, and while she now feels empowered to speak out, many other victims remain trapped in the physical and psychological trauma of whats happened to them. Aside from the UN Mine Action and the nobel prize winning ICBL (International Campaign to Ban Landmines) there are other ways to help. Support local NGOs that specialise in demining infested terrain, and get involved with charities that provide services to survivors. (for example prosthetic are low cost treatment options, now widely available, and championed by various charities). Finally spread the word. True success can be correlated by further reduction, instead of destruction.

Written by

Freelance journalist writing on mental health and disability. Words have the power to shine a light on realities otherwise missed.

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