DISARMAMENT: THOSE WHO CLEAN UP THE MESS


By Senthil Ratnasabapathy
   VIENNA, Oct. 13 (IPS) -- Planting a land mine is easy. Removing
it is the risky, oftentimes thankless work of people known as
de-miners. Their lot was made no easier by the failure this week
of a major U.N. effort to limit the proliferation of this most
vicious of weapons.
   On Oct. 6, three weeks of deliberations to review an
international convention imposing controls on mines and other
weapons ended without accord. Conference President, Johan Molander
asked delegates to reconvene Dec. 10-20 in Geneva, Switzerland to
have another go.
   "The conference has self-destructed," Jody Williams, coordinator
of the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, told reporters.
The body groups more than 350 groups in many countries.
   With all decisions requiring consensus, the conference
floundered when nations which had denounced land mines at the
outset of the conference, balked behind closed doors at imposing
an outright ban. "Everybody here has an issue they're trying to
protect," said Williams.
   As many as 110 million land mines are buried in 64 countries,
according to U.N. estimates. It is the job of de-miners to clean
up the mess.
   To see one at work is to experience an exercise in tedium: it
involves placing a pencil six centimeters deep into the ground 400
times for every square meter.
   As the number of conflicts in the world increase, and as some
get resolved, de-miners are in high demand. It is their job to
clean up the mess left over by armies and guerrillas, in the many
conflicts which litter the globe.
   Sometimes, mines are planted indiscriminately. They range from
up-to-date high-technology U.S-made mines which cost over $100 to
the cheapest variety, the Chinese made Type 72, which costs as
little as $3, but can blow up anything that is more than three
kilos in weight.
   Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country in the world. It
has more than ten million mines. Angola, just emerging from years
of internecine conflict, has nine million.
   No institution is certain how many million mines are in
Cambodia, a country which the U.S.-based NGO Human Rights Watch
(HRW) says exemplifies the humankind's capacity to inflict cruelty
upon itself. Estimates vary between four to seven million.
   Not only do these mines kill or maim 30,000 people -- mostly
civilians -- they can also disrupt civilian lives by preventing the
return of refugees and thus impeding economic development for
decades, says the HRW.
   The conference which formally ended Oct. 6 was officially called
the Review Conference on the U.N. Convention on Prohibition or
Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively
Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects. Its more common name
is CCW.
   Mine laying would appear to be very simple, say NGO activists.
Making them harmless is arduous. "It is a very dangerous job, and
needs discipline and control," says Sayed Aqa, director of the
Afghan Mine Clearance Planning Agency (MCPA), which, with a
complement of 3,000, is among the largest such outfits in the
world.
   The difficulty increases with the hostility of the terrain.
Afghanistan is mountainous. In Cambodia, the most pleasant looking
rice fields can turn deadly when laden with mines.
   The rice fields have first to be cleared blade-by-blade. Using
a machete, which could make things easier and quicker, might set
off a trip wire mine.
   Though mines have become more modern, with advanced
target-finding mechanisms, mine clearing, on the other hand, still
uses techniques developed in 1942, according to Patrick M. Blagden,
a U.N. de-mining expert.
   The most common method is prodding, assisted by metal detectors.
Sniffer dogs are also being increasingly used: mechanical
instruments, such as ploughs have not proven successful enough.
   "Our experience shows that the manual way of clearing mines
(through prodding and sniffer dogs is the best," Aqa told ips.
   A typical mine clearing operation will start with a general
survey, lasting up to six months. Information may be gathered from
locals, hospital staff and even ex-combatants.
   The second process is conducting a technical, or detailed,
survey in order to fill in the gaps and make the mine map more
accurate. An effort will also be made to find out the number and
types of mines in a particular location.
   The next step could be establishing priorities. "It has to be
decided which are the areas that need to be cleared first of all
in order to facilitate resumption of civilian productive life as
soon as possible," Aqa said.
   In Afghanistan, he said, a priority area of 120 million square
meters, out of a mined area of 480 million square kilometers, has
been declared as priority area.
   "They are mainly agricultural areas, villages, irrigation
canals... areas that will help the resumption of normal production
life," said Aqa.
   But before the actual de-mining work begins, more planning will
have to be done, like organizing medical facilities to treat
injured de-miners.
   "There has to be also an organizational setup. We have to ensure
that the person who de-mines does actually destroys it and not
resell it to somebody."
   In Afghanistan, he said, each de-mining team was further divided
into breaching parties, each of them consisting of two persons, a
detector and a prodder.
   The teams were then sent to a marked mine field, which ideally
would have a two meter safety lane. The detector first used a metal
detector. When the instrument gave a sign of detection, he
withdrew, allowing the prodder to start work.
   Ideally, the prodder would lie on his stomach and use the prod
-- which could be a knife or a rod -- into the ground. If the rod
is inserted vertically, it could touch the trigger mechanism.
   At times, the alarm could turn out to be false, says Aqa. Metal
pieces could also send off an alarm. "In Afghanistan, five hundred
pieces of metal may be detected before an actual mine is detected,"
Aqa says.
   Every half an hour, the breaching team changes jobs: the
detector becomes prodder and vice versa. And there should be at
least a gap of 50 meters between any two breaching teams. To avoid
any accidental explosion caused unintentionally by one team
affecting the second, Aqa says. The teams work six hours a day.
   The prodding work can appear to be boring, which increases the
danger as de-miners lose concentration and discipline. In
Afghanistan, the casualty rate among the de-miners is around thirty
per year. Most of them, said Aqa, result not from accidental
explosions, but the de-miners losing concentration or being
careless.