Sudan is one of the ten most landmine-affected countries in the world. A truce in the long-running civil conflict (which is separate from and far predates the crisis in Darfur) has now allowed the United Nations to begin work in southern Sudan, to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance.
Nobody knows precisely how many mines there are in the country, but Sudan’s 21-year civil war has resulted in a tremendously widespread problem with mines and unexploded ordnance. Many towns in southern Sudan suffer from the after-effects of major battles and aerial bombardments. Untold numbers of live bombs, grenades, and shells lie below the surface of fields near homes, putting children and their families at risk for dismemberment or death.
The UN clearance work focuses on removing landmines and unexploded weapons from roads and civilian areas likes schools, clinics and farms. This will allow displaced people to return home, open up routes for business and aid deliveries, and allow the expansion of farm land.
Many of the people who stayed in southern Sudan during the ongoing war know where the mines have been buried. They warn their children to stay away from them and to be watchful for any unexploded bombs or shells in the area. But there are now hundreds of Sudanese who are returning home (with thousands more children, women and men expected to arrive in the coming months), travelling through areas that may be rife with landmines or unexploded ordnance. These people don't know where the mines are.
An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people are killed or maimed by landmines every year, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Thousands of these victims are children. Landmines and unexploded ordnance violate a great many of the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including those that establish a child’s rights to life, to a safe environment in which to play, to health, clean water, sanitary conditions and to an adequate education.
Landmines are explosive devices that are designed to explode when triggered by pressure or a tripwire. These devices are typically found on or just below the surface of the ground. The purpose of mines when used by armed forces is to disable any person or vehicle that comes into contact with it by an explosion of fragments released at high speeds.
A landmine incident can cause various injuries to an individual including the loss of limbs, abdominal, chest and spinal injuries, blindness, deafness, severe burns, and less visible, psychological trauma not only to the person injured in the incident, but to the families of those killed or injured.
Landmines are indiscriminate weapons by nature: they do not distinguish between a soldier's footstep and a child's footstep.
Landmines maim and kill approximately 15,000 - 20,000 people every year, a third of which are children. 80% of them are civilians. They impact every aspect of human life including the ability for refugees to return to their homes. A report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) forecasts that "...although the number of people forced to abandon their homes across the world will continue to rise, fewer will be able to find safe refuge." According to this report, as of January 1, 1997, some 22.7 million people were at risk: 13.2 million refugees, 4.9 million internally displaced people (IDPs), 3.3 million returnees, and 1.3 million others. Of these 22 million people, more than half were located in the most heavily mined countries (Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Croatia, Eritrea, Iraq, Mozambique, Somalia, and Sudan).
Africa has the largest number of refugees (4.3 million) and the largest number of returnees (1.7 million), and had the largest number of repatriations in 1996 (1.56 million). Of a global total of about 30 million IDPs, Africa claims 16 million. About 4.4 million citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina were uprooted during the four years of conflict there, and their reintegration is expected to be a long and difficult process, compounded by the landmines in the region.
With the end of the Cold War, humanitarian organizations and peacekeepers have raced against time to stabilize former war zones but instead have found themselves penned in and logistically paralyzed by millions of hidden killers. The terrible irony of modern day peacekeeping for United States troops is that their lives are sometimes threatened by landmines manufactured, sold and shipped out from their own nation a few years or a generation ago.
U.S. mines have been identified during clearance operations in old and new global hot spots like Rwanda, Lebanon, Iraq, Nicaragua, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mozambique, Somalia and Angola.
The Mine Ban Treaty was devised in 1997. It prohibits all use, production, stockpiling and trade of anti-personnel mines. It has been signed by 141 countries and ratified by 150. Countries that have not yet signed it include "axis of evil" states North Korea, Iraq and Iran - and the United States. Other nonsignatories include China, Cuba, India, Israel and Russia. The United States is now the only NATO state not to have signed the treaty.
After achieving the required 40 ratifications in September 1998, the Mine Ban Treaty entered into force on March 1, 1999, becoming binding international law. This is believed to be the fastest entry-into-force of any major multilateral treaty ever.
The treaty to ban landmines is a classic example of what can be achieved when non governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments work together with determination to achieve a goal. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) is a network of more than 1200 non-governmental organizations in 60 countries, working for a global ban on landmines.
Despite the dangers posed by antipersonnel mines to U.S. troops in combat and on peacekeeping missions, the Pentagon clings to its assumptions about the military benefits of the weapon. Many in the U.S. military establishment are eager to reverse the U.S. policy calling for a total ban, believing that a ban on dumb mines is sufficient. The U.S. appears to be taking their time banning antipersonnel mines because of concerns expressed by some in the military that alternatives to antipersonnel mines have not yet been developed.
The U.S. stockpiles approximately 90,000 antipersonnel mines in the Persian Gulf region in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Diego Garcia, a territory of the United Kingdom in the Indian Ocean.
The horrific statistics speak for themselves: Landmines claim a new victim every 22 minutes. Armed with the knowledge of the danger and suffering that these killers inflict upon society, the boys in Washington still refuse to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. "It's about generals protecting their toys from rampaging peacemakers."
New mines are laid at a rate 25 times faster than they are being cleared.6 New technologies will make it easier to find and locate mines, but can't prevent their placement. As long as nations continue to use landmines, these devices will be a danger for civilians as well as soldiers.
The social and medical costs associated with landmines are astronomical. Landmines are found along roads, in fields and forests, beside power pylons, near wells and riverbanks, in homes and public buildings. As a result they can cause economic paralysis by restricting movement in what are usually agriculture-based economies. Without landmines agricultural production could more than double in both Afghanistan and Cambodia. In Libya 27% of the total arable land is unusable due to mines left behind from World War Two, over 50 years ago.
A sign denoting the presence of landmines. An international anti-landmine delegation met with officials and NGOs in Khartoum to discuss clearing efforts amid a growing influx of refugees returning to southern Sudan after a peace deal.
In Somalia grazing land and water sources have been badly hit. The mining of roads made inflation shoot up. In one region of Angola in 1988 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated the cost of delivering one tonne of relief supplies by rail and truck would have been $89; by aircraft it was $2,200. Similarly in Sudan in 1995, overland aid had to be replaced by air shipments costing $2,000 per tonne.
In war-torn countries medical services are ill-equipped and in disarray. Landmine injuries present a drain on available resources as they require complex surgery and more inputs. Surgical care and the fitting of an orthopaedic appliance cost at least $3,000 per amputee in 'developing' countries. For the 250,000 amputees estimated worldwide by the United Nations this means a bill of $750 million. In Cambodia 61% of mine victims went into debt to pay for their medical treatment. In Afghanistan the proportion was even higher, at 84%. A growing child's artificial limb should be replaced every six months; adults need a new one once every three to five years. Prostheses cost around $125: for a child of ten with a life expectancy of another 50 years the total cost is about $3,125. In most affected countries rehabilitation services are limited and care for psychological trauma is non-existent. Landmines stand guard long after the conflicts have ended and kill and maim without mercy or discrimination.