The Legacy of Land Mines in Places like Angola, Cambodia, and Bosnia, Millions of Land Mines Perpetuate an Era of Violence, Even after the Guns Are Silent

By J. Brian Atwood. J. Brian Atwood is the administrator of the Us Agency . | The Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Land Mines in Places like Angola, Cambodia, and Bosnia, Millions of Land Mines Perpetuate an Era of Violence, Even after the Guns Are Silent


J. Brian Atwood. J. Brian Atwood is the administrator of the Us Agency ., The Christian Science Monitor


ANGOLA'S civil war is once again winding to a close under the supervision of a UN peacekeeping force and the effective diplomacy of the international community, led by the United States. But, because of the scourge of land mines, Angola's war is not really over.

Millions of land mines litter Angola, and even during cease-fire they cause death and destruction every day. In fields, schoolyards, and by the side of the road, land mines strike with a terrible randomness and brutal efficiency. Usually planted just inches below the earth's surface, antipersonnel mines are set off by a single footstep - whether that foot belongs to a soldier, a mother, or an innocent child. Some mines commonly known as "toe-tappers" cost less than $3 to manufacture and are designed to blow off a foot.

The conventions of war dictate that the placement of land mines should be mapped so that their destructive force can later be safely found and removed. But war - especially civil war - rarely bows to convention. Over a period of 20 years, both sides in Angola's civil war planted nearly 50 varieties of mines throughout the country. These land mines were exported to Angola from a host of countries: Hungary, Cuba, China, South Africa, and the United States. The conflict in Angola is over, but the mines remain active and waiting.

The problems of removal

Mines are cheap, easy to produce, and last several decades. Moreover, they are extraordinarily painstaking to remove. Metal detectors are often of little use, either because the mines are predominantly plastic or the ground is so rich with shrapnel, shell casings, and other types of metal. As a result, mines are usually removed by hand, in an excruciating inch-by-inch search-and-removal process. The result is that a mine that costs only $3 to produce costs as much as $1,000 to find and remove.

Expert mine removers consider clearing a 20-by-20-foot area in an entire day a heroic effort; imagine the challenge involved in clearing what experts estimate could be as many as 20 million mines from Angola's landscape. Beyond a certain point, the numbers are inconsequential, for if the land where they are suspected to lie is not cleared, it cannot be used. So, even if half as many mines cover Angola, just as much work needs to be done.

Economic growth and agricultural development are nearly impossible when mines are suspected. People cannot plant crops, refugees cannot return home, and children cannot attend schools. …

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