Land mines only kill the innocent

By: Kathleen Kusterbeck
   I stood in the village of Nipic in the Province of Kampong Thom in Cambodia last year, wearing protective gear, gazing over acres of land that had not yet been cleared of land mines. Clearly visible were hundreds of small red signs with a white skull and crossbones. I saw teams of disabled Cambodian deminers working in the fields. They wore heavy protective vests, full fatigues, boots and full-face visor helmets. It was winter in Cambodia and the temperature was about 100 F. I felt faint and drained from the heat and humidity. I knew I would never survive their work.
   Throughout Cambodia, I saw and met villagers who survived their encounters with land mines; they were people with artificial arms and legs, disfigured faces and burn scars. I listened to women in the Province of Kampong Thom relate their story of watching a family member explode and die. I touched the remnants of American unexploded ordnance, known as UXOs, which are as dangerous as the land mines. I was ashamed at my association with these weapons. I felt angry that the evil of my country’s war persists nearly 30 years after withdrawal. The people I met did not behave as though I was a compatriot of those who dropped those UXOs. Most Cambodians were too young to have been alive during the American war in Vietnam and Cambodia.
   The task of demining work in Cambodia is extremely tedious, and can be done only during the dry season. Land-mine clearing must be done meticulously, one meter at a time. At the current rate, officials estimate that Cambodia will be cleared of mines and UXOs in 100 years.
   The long-term effects of these weapons are costly. Besides death, land mines cause hunger. Mined fields cannot be plowed or planted. Without the means to grow food, subsistence farmers cannot survive. Land mines cost about $1 to make and up to $3,000 to remove safely. More than 110 million land mines are still in place in more than 80 countries. Every 20 minutes, someone, somewhere in the world is killed or maimed by a land mine. The majority of land-mine victims are not soldiers; the victims continue to be the most vulnerable people, mainly rural civilians like the people I met in Nipic.
   Despite all these facts, our nation has not yet joined most of the world to stop this hidden killer of innocent people.
   Efforts have been taken worldwide to end the distribution of these tools of terror. Since 1997, citizens from around the world have lobbied to convince the U.S. government to join the rest of NATO (except Turkey), the whole of the Western Hemisphere (except Cuba) and three quarters of the world’s governments in eliminating and removing this indiscriminate and inhumane weapon. People of faith called for the ban long before then. The Mine Ban Treaty calls for a ban on the use, production, stockpiling and sale, transfers or export of antipersonnel mines; contributions to the demining trust fund, which is administered by the United Nations, and to other programs which promote and finance projects addressing land-mine issues.
   President Clinton did commit to join the treaty in 2006, but now there is great risk that President George W. Bush will not honor that commitment.
Kathleen Kusterbeck is associate director of Church World Service, New Jersey Region.