Clearing Land Mines

By Redmond, Robert S. | Contemporary Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Clearing Land Mines

Redmond, Robert S., Contemporary Review

SINCE 1939 there has been conflict of one kind or another in no less than sixty-eight countries. Every one, war, civil war or terrorist campaign, eventually comes to an end, but it leaves many kinds of dangerous debris in its wake. This is then a serious, long lasting threat to civilians who want only to return as quickly as possible to normal life and to live in safety. Too often, they are thwarted and injured or killed.

Unexploded bombs dropped by air forces turn up and are found by ramblers, holiday makers, workers on building sites -- even by children. They have sometimes been caught in fishermen's nets.

During World War I there was extensive use of poison gases. Some of these are still coming to light in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe. The slaughter of the Ypres salient may have ended in 1918, but a deadly harvest of gas and high explosive shells is still being gathered there. Twice a day in the little town of Poelkapele a siren sounds. Then there is an explosion as nasty contraptions brought there are destroyed. Here in Britain, the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal teams are still dealing with unexploded bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. But there is a longer history than that. Some ten years ago, an early form of shrapnel shell was found in Spain. It was a hollowed cannon ball filled with musket balls and black (i.e. gun) powder with a fuse protruding. It had been made some two hundred years earlier for use, probably by the army of Wellington, against the armies of Napoleon in the Peninsular War. The British Officer sent to Spain to deal with it said with a typical understatement: 'It was not really in a safe condition'. He, of course, made it safe, but it might have killed the child who found it.

Western nations can, of course, deal with these problems from their own resources. In any case, they do not have much serious or lasting effect on their economies. It is a very different story for poorer countries. From more recent conflicts, there are hundreds of thousands of land mines and cluster bombs lying around where the people lack the resources and knowledge to move them. They are a terrible hazard for civilians who are prevented from leading normal lives in safety and who are often maimed for life or killed by the evil debris planted on their land.

It is a fearful commentary that most of the victims know that they are on mined land at the time of accidents. They are forced to accept horrible risks by the economic pressure put on them. They need food; they need water; they have to try to earn a living as best they can and they recognise that they have no option but to risk their lives.

The leading British Charity or Non-Government Organisation (NGO) working to help with this problem is the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) with its headquarters in Manchester. It stresses that land mines, cluster bombs and bomblets are devastingly threatening to the poorest rural communities forced to try to strike a balance between meeting their own needs and minimising the risk of entering potentially mined land. Rising poverty creates pressure to cultivate land. The result, of course, can be death or serious injury which, in turn, aggravates the situation with even further hardship for bereaved families. Thus, mine injuries are both the result and the cause of poverty.

Everyone of goodwill must be glad that the Treaty of Ottawa has come into force. This has secured a ban on the manufacture, stock piling and trade in antipersonnel explosive devices. Organisations such as the International Red Cross and Save the Children Fund are keeping watch to ensure the terms are observed. The situation should then be under control so far as future conflicts are concerned. However much we may hope and pray otherwise, they are likely to happen, but we can, at least, trust they will not now leave the aftermath of yesterday. The ban is only a small part of a big and long-term problem. There are too many examples of what are called unexploded ordnance (UXOs) in too many places. …

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