Land-mines represent "an insidious and persistent danger" to children affected by war, says a new United Nations report on the impact of armed conflict on children, by Graça Machel, the UN Secretary-General's Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.
Children are particularly vulnerable to land-mines in a number of ways. If they are too young to read or are illiterate, signs posted to warn them of the presence of mines are useless. Also, children are far more likely to die from their mine injuries than are adults. Of those maimed children who survive, few will receive prostheses that keep up with the continued growth of their stunted limbs.
The report calls on governments and the international community to design mine awareness programmes and physical rehabilitation programmes with children's needs in mind. The report urges that humanitarian mine clearance be made a standard part of peace agreements. Above all, it calls on governments to enact immediate legislation banning the production, use, trade and stockpiling of land-mines and to support the campaign for a worldwide ban. Some 41 nations are now on record as being in favour of the permanent elimination of land-mines.
"Land-mines are uniquely savage in the history of modern conventional warfare not only because of their appalling individual impact, but also their long-term social and economic destruction," says Ms. Machel.
Children in at least 68 countries are today threatened by what may be the most toxic pollution facing mankind — the contamination by mines of the land they live on. Over 110 million land-mines of various types — plus millions more unexploded bombs, shells and grenades — remain hidden around the world, waiting to be triggered by the innocent and unsuspecting, the report says. So common are mines in Cambodia that they are now used for fishing, to protect private property and even to settle private disputes.
Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia have suffered 85 per cent of the world's land-mine casualties. Overall, African children live on the most mine-plagued continent, with an estimated 37 million mines embedded in the soil of at least 19 countries. Angola alone has an estimated 10 million land-mines and an amputee population of 70,000, of whom 8,000 are children. Since May 1995 children have made up about half the victims of the 50,000-100,000 anti-personnel mines laid in Rwanda.
Once laid, a mine may remain active for up to 50 years. Unless vigorous action is taken, mines placed today will still be killing and maiming people well into the middle of the next century. In just one district of Viet Nam 300 children have died, 42 have lost one or more limbs, and 16 have been blinded as a result of land-mines laid during the Viet Nam war. As one Khmer Rouge general put it, a land-mine is the most excellent of soldiers, for it is "ever courageous, never sleeps, never misses."
Land-mines pose particular dangers for children. Naturally curious, children are likely to pick up strange objects, such as the infamous toy-like 'butterfly' mines that Soviet forces spread by the millions in Afghanistan. In northern Iraq, Kurdish children have used round mines as wheels for toy trucks, while in Cambodia, children use B40 anti-personnel mines to play 'boules', notes the report.
Land-mines also have more catastrophic effects on children, whose small bodies succumb more readily to the horrific injuries mines inflict. In Cambodia, an average of 20 per cent of children injured by mines and unexploded ordnance die from their injuries. Children who manage to survive explosions are likely to be more seriously injured than adults, and often permanently disabled. Because a child's bones grow faster than the surrounding tissue, a wound may require repeated amputation and a new artificial limb as often as every six months — although the prosthesis is not likely to be available. Moreover, competing demands for scarce medical services also mean that children injured by mines seldom receive the care they deserve. Only 10-20 per cent of children disabled by mines in El Salvador receive any rehabilitative therapy.
Land-mines also strike insidiously at a war-torn country's reconstruction and development. The widespread practice of mining agricultural land has led to malnutrition, even to famine and starvation. Mines laid along roads and tracks prevent the safe repatriation of refugees and impede the delivery of aid. Cambodian farmland has been so severely contaminated by mines, for example, that only 2,435 families were able to take up allocations of land out of the 85,000 originally scheduled.
"Clearing a field of mines gives life back to a local community," says Ms. Machel. "It gives people the chance to grow their own crops rather than rely on international assistance. In short, it restores human dignity and promotes human security."
Protecting children from land-mines calls for a major international commitment to large-scale mine clearance and the development of child-oriented programmes for mine awareness and physical rehabilitation, the report states. It is essential for children in high-risk areas to receive more innovative education in mine awareness by utilizing, for example, child-to-child approaches, role-playing and the use of survivors as educators.
Greater attention must be assigned to training local mine clearance teams and to adapting one-size-fits-all international techniques to local needs, the report urges.
Mine removal is a lengthy and expensive business. Weapons that cost as little as $3 each to manufacture can cost up to $1,000 to remove. Land-mines can be blithely spread at rates of over 1,000 per minute, but it may take a skilled expert an entire day just to clear by hand 20-50 square metres of mine-contaminated land.
Few war-torn nations are able to mount such programmes alone. The UN has established a voluntary trust fund through which countries can share the burden of mine clearance. To date, countries have pledged $22 million towards the UN goal of $75 million. The report recommends that "countries and companies that have profited from the sale of mines should be especially required to contribute to funds designated for humanitarian mine clearance and mine awareness programmes. Measures to reduce the proliferation and trade of land-mines, such as consumer boycotts, should be explored."
While it may take decades to clear away most of the land-mines that contaminate the earth, a start has been made. The first organized UN de-mining operation began in Afghanistan in 1990 with a single 24-man local team, supported by expatriate advisers. Today, the programme employs some 3,000 Afghan de-miners on 48 clearance crews, along with 16 mine awareness teams.
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