Confronting the Land Mine Threat
By Maj. Donna Miles, USAR
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 19, 1998 High in the rugged mountains of Honduras near its border with Nicaragua, members of the U.S. Army's special operations forces are putting national policy into practice.
They're moving through a thick forest, coaching Honduran soldiers who are sweeping a metal detector back and forth across the ground. Through headsets wired to the detectors, the Hondurans listen to the tic-tic-tic sound emitted from the ground. If the pitch changes to a tac-tac-tac, they know they may have found a buried land mine.
Since 1993, the U.S. military has sent forces into Bosnia, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Honduras, Laos, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda and Yemen to conduct demining training. Collectively, these U.S. troops have trained more than a quarter of the world's specialists in finding and disposing of land mines.
In Bosnia, U.S. troops set up multimedia computer systems in the Muslim, Croat and Serbian areas that play videotapes, print out posters and silk-screen T-shirts -- all to educate the local populations about the land mine threat. They use similar systems in Honduras, Laos, Mozambique, Jordan and Rwanda.
In Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica, special operations forces are distributing newly published comic books in both Spanish and English designed to teach children to stay away from mines and unexploded ordnance, and what to do if they find them.
The scenes -- and similar ones being played out throughout Central and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Balkans -- are examples of an extensive U.S. initiative to protect civilians from land mines.
Mines are hidden killers, a deadly debris of war that lies in wait to kill and maim long after hostilities have ended. And as the late Princess Diana helped bring to worldwide attention, anti-personnel mines often claim the youngest, poorest and most vulnerable members of society -- children at play and peasants struggling to rebuild their lives in the wake of death and destruction.
Mines have been a part of U.S. military tactics since the Civil War. The United States, for example, relies on them to help defend South Korea from more than 1 million North Korean infantry troops massed just north of the demilitarized zone. In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, these minefields were marked when they were laid and will be removed when forces leave the area.
The United States was criticized last year during the Ottawa Convention when it refused to sign an international agreement banning all anti-personnel land mines. The convention rejected the U.S. insistence on the right to maintain mines in Korea -- and wherever else they may be needed to support a military mission or protect U.S. forces.
What didn't make the newspaper headlines during the convention was the fact the United States is the longtime global leader in the effort to eliminate land mines. A presidential initiative launched in 1997, for instance, aims to eliminate all land mines that endanger civilians by the year 2010.
U.S. officials say buried land mines plague about 70 countries around the world. Iran has an estimated 16 million buried mines; Angola, 15 million; and Afghanistan, China and Iraq, about 10 million each. Conservative estimates place the world's uncleared mine total as high as 110 million -- with an untold number more stored in munitions stockpiles and depots around the globe.
These mines claim about 500 innocent lives every week, according to State Department estimates, and they leave countless more victims without feet, legs and arms.
Col. George Zahaczewsky, DoD's assistant for explosive ordnance disposal and humanitarian demining research and development, said the department is responding to the land mine problem on several fronts.
During the last five years the United States has spent more than $153 million to establish humanitarian demining programs in 16 countries, he said. As part of that program, more than $8 million in mine detection and removal equipment has been donated to mine-infested countries. In addition, the military has deployed soldiers into high-threat areas to increase mine awareness.
DoD is pursuing an aggressive research and development program to come up with more effective mine marking and detection systems. Zahaczewsky said the military spent $16.6 million in fiscal 1998 alone, focusing largely on off-the-shelf equipment heavily mined countries can purchase. For a longer-term answer to the problem, he said, DoD is exploring methods of detecting and removing mines faster and more reliably.
Zahaczewsky said land mines will probably never be completely eliminated as a threat to civilians, especially as they gain popularity among guerrilla forces who use them indiscriminately. But, he said, the humanitarian demining program is making broad strides in helping reduce the land mine threat.
The true success of the demining program is best gauged, he said, not by the number of deminers trained or mines unearthed, but by decreases in the number of people who fall victim to land mines -- and who have the opportunity to live long, healthy lives.