World

The hidden killers

Canada steps up the fight for a global ban on land mines

NOMI MORRIS June 3 1996
World

The hidden killers

Canada steps up the fight for a global ban on land mines

NOMI MORRIS June 3 1996

The hidden killers

Canada steps up the fight for a global ban on land mines

World

After four years of war cooped up in a Sarajevo basement, 15-year-old Benjamin Mulabdic could not resist the temptation of the first spring sunshine. As he and a friend explored the terrain near abandoned Serb houses—an outing forbidden by their parents—Mulabdic stepped on a land mine. It blew off his left leg. “I tried to get up. I couldn’t,” he recalled as he rested in Sarajevo’s Kosevo Hospital, staring at the bandaged stump of the leg that used to deliver his best soccer kicks. In a nearby bed, another mine victim, six-year-old Maid Bucman, scrawled in a coloring book, unaware that doctors may not be able to save his shattered right leg or the remaining half of his left foot Just days earlier, in a Mostar playground, another boy had picked up a strange cone-shaped device. It exploded, killing one woman and maiming four children. “Children, thank God, have more resources to deal with this,” said Sarajevo surgeon Faruk Kulenovic.

But it is children who are most vulnerable to the estimated 110 million land mines that lie hidden in some 64 countries. Touched off by a misplaced foot or wheel, they kill or maim up to 20,000 civilians annually, usually after the wars they were planted for have abated. Now, U.S. President Bill Clinton has disappointed anti-mine activists—including the Canadian government— by declining to endorse an outright ban on the production and use of the weapons. That has made Ottawa a leader in the war against the indiscriminate devices, which the International Committee of the Red Cross calls “blind terrorists.” As a first step towards a global ban, Foreign Af-

fairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy is pushing for a hemispheric “land-mines-free zone,” which will be on the agenda at a meeting in June of the Organization of American States. And Canada will host a conference in September, inviting most of the 39 countries that back an outright ban, including anti-mine heavyweights Germany, Britain and Norway. “The situation is grave,” Valerie Warmington, chairwoman of the 30-group coalition Mines Action Canada, said last week. “But we’re excited about this meeting and Canada’s efforts.”

Dramatizing Canada’s commitment, Axworthy recently added a shoe to a pile of footwear dumped on Parliament Hill to symbolize amputee victims in a demonstration organized by schoolchildren and the Canadian Red Cross.

The shocking statistics on land mines have led to a groundswell of international indignation in recent years. Five million new mines are laid annually; only 100,000 are cleared. In Cambodia, two decades of civil war have left one mine for every person. As a result, one in 236 Cambodians is an amputee, the highest rate of disability in the world. The mine-per-person rate is similar in Angola, where economic recovery is stymied by the mini-bombs’ ubiquitous presence along key bridges and roads. In Malange, one of several Angolan cities ringed by mines, more

than 170,000 people are prisoners in their own town, unable to move beyond a short radius. In Croatia, 600,000 acres of agricultural land are considered unusable. The devices—especially antipersonnel mines, which target individuals— cost as little as $3 each to produce and as much as $1,300 to painstakingly remove. “Some look like plastic toys and are designed to maim children,” says B.C. Reform MP Dr. Keith Martin, who has worked with victims of Mozambique’s one million mines.

Moreover, despite a historic UN conference on land mines held in Geneva in late April, the numbers will continue to grow. Many of the 53 nations attending backed only a limited ban, wishing to keep the options open for their militaries to use mines defensively and for their armaments industries to sell them. In the end, the UN conference adopted a protocol that permits the use of “smart mines”—those that self-destruct in three to four months. It also brought in a measure requiring new devices to have a minimum amount of metal—rather than just plastic or wood—so that they can be detected and removed. But the conference made no provision for monitoring or compliance. Activists said the results marked some progress, but mean that mines will still kill an esti-

mated 50,000 people and injure another 80,000 by the time the UN group meets again in five years.

Many activists had hoped Washington would show leadership and follow through on Clinton’s earlier commitment to outlaw mines—especially after a group of top American officers, led by Gulf War commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, spoke out about the weapons’ near obsolescence in modern high-tech military strategy. ‘We must act so the children of the world can walk without fear on the earth beneath them,” Clinton declared on May 16. He ordered the U.S. army to dispose of more than four million of its “dumb” mines— those that do not self-destruct— by 1999. But he made an exception for those used in the border region between North and South Korea, on the grounds that they are essential to the defence of the South. He also delayed his time frame for a global ban, naming the year 2001 as the goal. Critics claimed that both moves were aimed at appeasing the U.S. military during an election year.

The disappointing UN conference and Clinton’s watered-down policy leave Canada to pick up the ball, says NDP foreign affairs critic Bill Blakie. ‘We, as Canadians, cannot be satisfied by just saying we are not using them,” Blakie

said last week. “It’s time to confront the Americans. It’s like taking a position on mustard gas or a nuclear bomb—you’re either going to use it or you’re not” Yet even in Canada, which has banned the export of mines since 1987 and their production since 1992, there is controversy over the government’s reluc-

tance to destroy existing mine arsenals, kept ostensibly for training. Norway and Denmark, by contrast, have both decided to destroy mine stocks. “It’s ridiculous,” says Mines Action Canada’s Warmington. “The rest of our ban is not credible if we reserve these stockpiles.”

But the niggles about Canada’s approach quickly fade when compared with the actions of some of the many countries that still reject a ban. Russia alone recently laid two million mines in Chechnya within two months. The Bosnian government last month added a chilling coda to its mine tragedy: a Western diplomat told Maclean’s that a former Yugoslavian weapons factory in the central Bosnian town of Travnik has secretly begun to produce fresh antipersonnel mines. “It is an unconscionable outrage,” declared a Norwegian mine-clearing expert when asked to comment He was still in shock from witnessing a Canadian soldier lose both legs while trying to cordon off a mined area.

That incident brought to 42 the number of NATO soldiers killed or maimed by mines in Bosnia this year. The department of nation-

al defence says Canadian peacekeeping forces have been involved in 40 mine accidents worldwide in the past three years, killing two soldiers and wounding 30. Only a handful of those cases were due to mine-clearing operations.

In Bosnia, the war may be over but the carnage is not. The country has been seeded with at least three million mines—from hightech devices that jump up and explode at chest level to crude home-made booby traps in beer cans or cigarette cartons. Former soldier Mirza Dzhihan, 32, was walking near a front line in Sarajevo last month when he stepped on a brick to avoid a puddle and ended

up losing his right leg. “Thousands of people walk that path. I had veered off into the grass to take a leak,” he shrugged. “Who knows? That could have been one of the mines I laid along here. We were told to do it” At current rates in Bosnia, it will take 30 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to make it safe again for children like Sarajevo’s Mulabdic and Bucman to go outside on a spring day. Ridding the world of land mines would take immeasurably

longer. But in the view of countries like Canada, a global ban on the hidden killers is the only

way to get started.

NOMI MORRIS

LOUISE BRANSON