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Legacy of the killing fields

The efficiency of today's instruments of war is beyond question, but the straight facts are that the war machine is geared to destroy, and not clean up after itself. Jerome Monahan looks at the landmine's brutal legacy

"I went with my cousins to see the place where NATO bombed. As we walked, I saw something yellow. One of my cousins took it and put it in a well. Nothing happened... We began talking about taking the bomb to play with and then it exploded. The boy near me died and I was thrown a metre in the air. The boy who died was 14 - he had his head cut off."

13-year-old boy in Pristina Hospital in Kosovo, having undergone a double-leg amputation.

Armies in wartime are very effective when it comes to killing and causing destruction. However, hey are not so good at clearing up after themselves. Often there remains a deadly legacy for those who return in peacetime hoping to recover their land and rebuild their lives. Littering the landscape or buried beneath the soil are landmines and unexploded ordnance - the collective term for such things as missiles, mortars, cluster bomblets and grenades. They remain to plague some of the poorest communities in the world, denying them valuable farmland and usually devastating those who survive the consequences of accidentally setting them off.

Anti-personnel landmines come in many shapes and forms but they share certain characteristics. Traditionally, they have been seen as something used for defence, to "multiply" artificially the strength of those deploying them. They are victim-activated; in other words they are usually set off when someone steps on them or catches on a trip wire. They are used to provoke fear - frequently the explosive charge is only enough to maim, through a combination of blast, shrapnel injuries and infection. The cries of comrades wounded by these weapons are calculated to sow despondency and the gruesome injuries they cause require complex care taking up valuable resources.

Landmines cannot discriminate between the footfall of a soldier or the step of a farmer hoeing his land or a child herding goats. And with the restoration of mined or ordnance-strewn land to civilian populations, it was these kinds of innocuous activities that started generating landmine victims - thousands of them. They put unsustainable strain on the medical systems of some of the poorest nations in the world: Cambodia, Laos, Afghanistan, Angola and Eritrea, to name but a few.

The first hints of the devastating effects of war residue on ordinary people began to emerge in the late Eighties thanks to early attempts to clear landmines in Afghanistan. In the Nineties, the outrage about the continuing manufacture and trade in anti-personnel weapons grew steadily. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) benefited from the parallel development of the internet, which enabled the quick dissemination of information or calls for campaigning action.

In January 1997 Princess Diana, as an International Red Cross VIP Volunteer, caused huge controversy by visiting Angola, putting on protective clothing and an anti-blast mask and posing for the world's press near uncleared minefields. Later she appeared in the company of children disabled by landmine accidents. The international pressure for a comprehensive landmine ban heightened after Diana's death in August that year: a treaty to end the making, trading and use of these weapons was seen as a fitting tribute to the campaign's most famous champion.

In December 1997, 122 nations gathered in the Canadian capital Ottawa to pledge themselves to the Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty. It became a firm international convention when, the following September, Burkina Faso in West Africa became the fortieth nation to fully ratify it by passing national laws reflecting the treaty's articles.

The Mine Ban Treaty holds the record for being the most rapidly adopted piece of international law. As of October 2001, 142 countries had signed the treaty and 122 had ratified it by making its conditions legally binding on their citizens. Unfortunately, the world's largest holders of landmine stocks - the United States, Russia and China - have not yet added their names to the list. It is calculated that there are still 215-225 million landmines stockpiled in non-signatory countries.

This is just one of several factors that make the landmine issue as current a cause for concern as it has ever been. Unresolved issues include the continued use of landmines, for example in Chechnya, or worse still by signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty such as Uganda in the Congo - though this accusation has been denied. Then there is the problem of anti-vehicle mines, not banned under the Ottawa convention, but frequently armed with anti-handling and anti-tilt devices so sensitive that they effectively become anti-personnel devices. There are also fears that the next generation of so-called "non-lethal" anti-personnel weapons being developed in countries such as the US will be just as inhumane.

The progress that has been made towards eradicating. Just 15 years ago it was the received wisdom that such a ban was impossible. Last year's Landmine Monitor (see ICBL website, below) reported that official trade in landmines had effectively ceased.

But the problems associated with explosive remnants of war are proving far more intractable. Take the continued use of cluster munitions, famous for littering countries such as Laos, Kosovo and Afghanistan with unexploded bomblets, and likely to spread with the development of cheaper land-based "platforms" from which to launch them.

At present there is no legal necessity for countries to clear up such remnants of war - although efforts are being made by pressure groups to change this.

As the campaigning continues across the world, de-mining teams are surveying the landscapes of previously war-torn states, locating and mapping mines and ordnance, educating local people about the dangers and undertaking the often painfully slow process of detecting and destroying landmines and abandoned explosives. Last year, ICBL monitors suggested there had been a significant drop in new landmine victims, although the figure still lay somewhere between 15,000-20,000 people.

These and all the other thousands of victims of these deadly and indiscriminate weapons demonstrate the continuing urgency of humanitarian landmine action and the need for tighter international weapons controls.

LANDMARKS OF LANDMINES

History of landmines

The first true anti-personnel devices used in war were probably pointed stake-pits such as those used by Caesar's army to defeat a superior Gaulish force at the battle of Alesia in 52 BC.

Another ancestor is the caltrop - a four-spiked object usually made of iron, which when dropped always presents a vertical barbed prong capable of piecing a foot or a horse's hoof. Alexander the Great's forces used them during his campaigns in Asia Minor and they even made an appearance in the last James Bond film as one of the defences his car could mobilise against pursuers.

In the 1860s, during the American Civil War, the first victim-activated high explosives were laid. They were known as torpedoes and caused outrage. The Unionist general McCellan called their use "murderous and barbarous conduct".

The static and closely fought trench warfare of the First World War meant that there was relatively light use of landmines, which are most effective when used to hold up and harass armies in rapid advance. There were advances in the use of anti-tank mines protected by anti-personnel devices.

This mass use of mines in minefields came into its own during the Second World War, first in North Africa and then on the Russian Front. Millions were laid.

One of the most significant developments in landmine technology since 1945 has been the development of air-dispersed devices such as the BLU, various versions of which were dropped in their thousands over south-east Asia during the Vietnam War or the PFM-1 used by the Russians in Afghanistan. The PFM's butterfly wings and sometimes bright colours make them particularly attractive to children.

Main types of landmines

Blast mines: set off when pressure - as little as that exerted by a step - is applied to a fuse.

Fragmentation mines: trip-wire operated. They usually take the form of a stake of metal or plastic-enclosed explosive driven into the ground. Their casing is ribbed or segmented in order to fragment (break up) over a wide area.

Bounding fragmentation mines: also trip-wire activated. These mines contain two charges - a small one that shoots the device into the air (typically to adult hip height), where the second detonates, causing death and injury within a radius of up to 40 metres.

Directional fragmentation mines: trip-wire or electrically fired by nearby troops as part of an ambush.

Injuries caused by landmines

The injuries resulting from setting off a number of anti-personnel mines are not immediately fatal but, without swift medical care, death from shock, blood loss or infection is highly likely. Many landmine victims in developing countries face long and agonising journeys to hospital, where they are very unlikely to find doctors or facilities geared up to cope with the complex range of damage they will have sustained.

Covering the costs of transporting an injured relative and then paying for medical care will usually place a devastating strain on poor families. Poverty often prevents victims from receiving long-term rehabilitation they will require once their immediate injuries are dealt with. A child losing a leg in a landmine action may need as many as 15 prosthetic (false) limbs while growing up.

The damage that victims experience varies according to their distance from the explosion and the kind of mine. Many mines damage bone and tissue far from the most obvious sites of injury. They also drive metal, soil and clothing into wounds, which then are at serious risk of infection. The vast proportion of landmine accidents result in victims losing one or more limbs - if they survive at all.

FINDING OUT MORE

Landmine Action's schools pack contains key stage 4 resources that are geared for citizenship, English, drama, PSE, religious and moral education, and media studies. It lays special emphasis on the impact of landmines and unexploded ordnance on civilian populations, and invites students to imagine themselves in the roles of both those who lay mines and those who participate in de-mining activities. Website contains the latest information about landmines and unexploded ordnance, as well as links to pdf files featuring Landmine Action reports. Free resource.

Tel: 020 7401 4070.

Email: requests@edcoms.co.uk.

www.landmineaction.org

International Campaign to Ban Landmines The key umbrella organisation for anti-landmine groups world wide, including the UK-based Landmine Action. The site contains the latest information about the use of landmines, links to photographs and Landmine Monitor - the annually produced "state of the world" review charting the use of landmines in ongoing conflicts, current casualty figures in landmine accidents and progress towards landmine eradication.

www.icbl.org

Mines Advisory Group

The international non-governmental organisation that assists people affected by landmines and unexploded ordnance. MAG clears and destroys the landmines and weapons left over after the war.

www.mineaction.org

The International Committee of the Red Cross www.icrc.orgengmines

United Nations Mine Action Service www.mineaction.org

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