Seeds of death

Issue 

By Fernando Gonçalves

Residents of the small southern Mozambican town of Namaacha, on the border with Swaziland, are now accustomed to the daily explosions that scare off visitors. A team of 50 land mines clearance personnel are busy searching for unexploded land mines in the vicinity of Canada Dry, a local soft drinks factory, now abandoned.

In 1984, at the height of the war in Mozambique, the factory was severely damaged in an attack by South African-backed Renamo rebels. In response, the government deployed a military protection unit that guarded the factory 24 hours a day.

The soldiers laid anti-personnel land mines around the factory, preventing anyone from ever getting close to it. One woman who had a small plot in the area around the factory was lucky to have been tipped off by some soldiers that her plot could no longer be used. "Tell it to nobody", they confided in her.

When in 1992 the government and Renamo signed the Rome peace agreement, land mines clearance was one of the major and urgent humanitarian operations that needed to be undertaken.

The garrison at the Canada Dry factory had to be withdrawn in compliance with the terms of the peace agreement. However, the minefield around it remained, unknown to anyone, and worse still, unmarked.

The woman, eager to regain her land, told the authorities, who in 1995 began removing the deadly ordnance. The area was so heavily mined that in a single operation landmine clearance personnel unearthed 75 mines in an area of 50 square metres. The situation at Namaacha is just a small part of the large problem of landmines in Mozambique and in many other parts of the world.

Although the wars that prompted the landmines to be laid are over in many countries, the mines themselves are still active, hidden under the soil, waiting for their next victims — most probably children looking for fruits in the wild, or women fetching water from a river.

The use of landmines in armed conflicts throughout the world has become so widespread that by early 1995 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that there could be as many as 110 million of them spread in 64 countries, killing or maiming between 12,000 and 24,000 people every year, most of them civilians.

A complete clearance of all these mines is likely to cost some US$85 billion by conservative estimates, says the United Nations. This does not include the additional cost of providing victims with medical care, prostheses and rehabilitation.

For example, a child's prosthesis needs to be replaced every six months, and an adult's once every 3-5 years. A child injured at the age of 10, with a life expectancy of another 40-50 years, will therefore need 25 appliances for the rest of his/her life, which at approximately $125 per prosthesis amounts to $3125. In most poor countries, where the average monthly per capita income does not exceed $15, the impact of this situation on the already debilitated economies cannot be overestimated.

Large parts of at least 18 countries in Africa — the poorest continent on earth — are seeded with death, with an estimated 30 million mines scattered in fields that were once filled with lush crops, in bushes, on rural roads, railways, and along powerlines.

When in 1984 Renamo began blowing up the powerlines supplying electricity to Maputo from South Africa, the government's response was to turn the areas around every pylon into lethal minefields. By the time the war ended, both parties to the conflict had left an estimated 2 million landmines littering many parts of the country, and making the resettlement of the 6 million returning refugees and displaced persons even more complex.

The information on minefields is usually known only to a small group of officers and those who lay the mines. Only in a few instances are records kept and mined areas demarcated. Often, those who laid the mines die in combat, together with their knowledge. But the landmines will lie there forever, waiting to accomplish their mission. In some countries, over one third of the victims are women and children.

The human suffering caused by landmines is enormous. Because most landmine incidents occur in rural areas where there are no hospitals, most victims die before they can receive any medical treatment. The ICRC estimates that 5O% of landmine victims die within minutes of the explosion.

Usually, where a landmine explosion occurs, there could be other land mines around and the risk of a person stepping on a landmine while trying to help a victim is very high. Before a victim is given assistance, the area around the explosion has to be cleared by experts. The so-called "group mines" are designed to kill or maim more than just the detonator.

If a victim survives, serious injuries — sometimes requiring amputation — are inevitable. In 1993, the Medical Educational Trust Report put the figures of amputations as a result of landmine explosions in some African countries as follows: 1 per 470 persons in Angola, 1 per 1100 in Uganda, 1 per 1650 in Somalia, 1 per 1862 in Mozambique.

Apart from their human victims, landmines constitute a serious economic problem, not only in loss of potential agricultural production and other rural activities hampered by the existence of landmines, but also in the process of searching and removing them.

People are prevented from moving freely, hampering their capacity to carry out their activities. So, even in times of peace, large tracts of land which could otherwise be major sources of food, nutrition and income remain dormant. In Angola, 33% of the country's territory is virtually unusable due to landmines. Although the war in Zimbabwe ended in 1979, on the eve of independence, 1 million acres [400,000 hectares] of land in the country are totally unusable because of landmines, estimated to number 1.3 million.

The cost of producing a landmine ranges from US$3 to US$75, while clearing one, including recruitment of personnel, equipment and salaries, but excluding fuel, transport and other inputs, costs $300 to $1000.

During the liberation war in Zimbabwe, the Rhodesian army boasted that its minefields, laid to deter attacks by guerillas, constituted the world's second largest man-made barrier after the Great Wall in China. Zipra and Zanla guerillas also laid minefields, and subsequently, from 1980 to 1987, further landmines were laid during a civil war.

The costs and the suffering caused by landmines can not be measured only in terms of the number of people killed and the treatment and rehabilitation of those maimed. The lost productivity of a worker who has fallen victim to a landmine and, in cases where the head of a family is killed, the number of dependents who will be deprived of a regular income constitute part of the bill.

To be caught in a landmine explosion is horrific. Amputees normally need two major operations. Over 65% of the cases treated in ICRC hospitals require additional operations due to delays in their evacuation. Only 28% of casualties receive medical treatment within six hours of the explosion. In some cases, such as those described from Angola, many amputations have to be performed without anaesthetics by inexperienced paramedics, and wounds have had to be sewn with domestic thread. Those lucky enough to get assistance are often transported in rough conditions without anaesthetics.

Sometimes it is the landmine clearance personnel themselves who become victims while searching for land mines. And for every clearance officer who becomes a casualty, a number of others become demoralised and abandon the job. New recruits have to be found and trained, at a considerable cost, while the state is required to indemnify the victim or the family.

Even if clearance operations were undertaken on a large scale, just how effective they can be is anyone's guess. Conventional landmine detectors detect only metal landmines. Newly developed plastic mines remain untouched.

The scale of the problem has not deterred states and unconventional forces from widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines.

More than 250 million landmines have been manufactured over the past 26 years, and anti-personnel landmines continue to be produced at an average rate of 5-10 million per year. "For every mine that is cleared, another 20 are laid", according to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

International campaigns advocating a total ban on landmines have been met with cynicism on the part of both producers and users. Of the more than 160 countries in the world, only 40 have so far ratified the 198O UN convention which restricts the use of landmines.

The convention's protocols call, amongst other measures, for landmine users to keep records of the location of minefields laid during armed conflicts, a provision which has never been implemented.

Of the 40 states that are parties to the treaty, only three — Benin, Niger and South Africa — are from Africa. Africa's participation at the 1980 convention's review conference, held in September and October 1995 in Vienna, was pathetic. Only seven African nations attended the conference, although earlier in the year the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity had passed a strong resolution against landmines, calling on all its members to accede to the treaty.

But even if adherence to the treaty were overwhelming, critics point out that it lacks mechanisms of implementation, inspection and enforcement, rendering it ineffective. Anti-landmine campaigners argue for a more effective system of control that attaches to landmines the same stigma that the international community reserves for chemical and biological weapons.

Another major weakness of the treaty has to do with the fact that it covers only international conflicts. Most conflicts in which landmines are widely used are internal.

Because landmines are cheaper and effective, and since weapons purchases are usually done in secrecy, it would be difficult to completely impose a ban. Mindful of the problems faced by a total ban, humanitarian organisations are advocating the tightening of the Landmines Protocol of the 198O convention as far as their use against civilians, and the need to demarcate minefields, are concerned.

The 1980 convention lacks a binding legal provision that would require parties to a conflict to identify and clear landmine fields once the conflict is over.

The review conference itself was a fiasco, according to some participants. "They came away no closer to a global ban on anti-personnel landmines than they had been when they began their three weeks of talks", says Alex Vines of the London-based Human Rights Watch, one of the organisations calling for a total ban.

Anti-landmine activists are also concerned with what is known as "double-dipping", a system through which landmine manufacturers are awarded contracts to clear mines. Despite its public stance against landmines, the UN awarded a US$7.5 million contract for mine clearance in Mozambique to a consortium which included the British arms manufacturer Royal Ordnance and South Africa's Mechem, a subsidiary of Denel, the export division of the state arms manufacturer, Armscor. Both companies produce landmines.

There are also disturbing reports of developing countries that now possess the technical capability to produce landmines. One, Zimbabwe, has persistently denied the allegations, although at its annual International Trade Fair in 1994 in Bulawayo, landmines featured prominently amongst some of the products exhibited by the state-owned Zimbabwe Defence Industries.

There is also cynicism about the extent to which producers and users are prepared to foot the bill of mine clearance. When in July 1995 the UN called for an international meeting to solicit contributions to its new Voluntary Fund for Mine Clearance, its target was US$75 million. Pledges amounted to only US$20.5 million, and there are no guarantees that the funds will ever be paid.
[Abridged from Southern Africa Political and Economic Monthly.]