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Rooting out hidden war hazards Mines: Though Angola's civil war has ended, the population remains terrorized by thousands of unexploded land mines. They are among the 110 million mines still buried in 68 countries.

LUENA, ANGOLA — LUENA, Angola -- When Chisola Pezo set out from the village of Kavungo in northeastern Angola just after sunrise on June 2, 1990, she had two wishes, both of them born of desperation. She hoped a patch of cassava near the river would yield enough of the starchy root crop to feed her children and that she would make it back home alive.

Angola was in the middle of a civil war that had devastated the country since independence from Portugal in 1975, and most of Moxico Province, which borders Zaire and Zambia, was in rebel hands.

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The battles in the province had left thousands of people dead, hundreds of villages in ruins, and vast areas littered with land mines.

The 36-year-old woman knew about the mines, of course, as did all villagers. Both sides in the war used anti-personnel mines in great quantities; the rebels were known to plant them on paths used by civilians. This path, however, was used daily and thought to be safe.

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Pezo didn't get far.

She was a half-mile down the trail when she stepped on a small mine which blasted her right foot off at the ankle, drove dirt and stones deep into the wound and lacerated part of her left leg.

The explosion was heard back in the village. Neighbors carried her to a nearby military hospital, where doctors amputated her leg at mid-calf, but the amputation was too low, and spreading infection required a second amputation weeks later at mid-thigh.

Call for action

Alarmed by the continuing land-mine casualties in Angola and other countries, delegates from four dozen nations met last week in Ottawa to push for a global ban on anti-personnel mines.

'The main purpose is to demonstrate that a ban is real and imminent,' Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said opening the conference. "There has been an unprecedented welling up of enthusiasm and commitment to end the scourge of land mines.'

The United Nations estimates that 110 million mines lie buried in 68 countries and maim or kill 2,000 people a month. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that one out of every 470 Angolans has lost a limb to a land mine. In Cambodia, one of every 236 people is an amputee.

The figures are only estimates, because the United Nations, the Red Cross and the armies who planted the mines can't say for sure how many there are.

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Angola is strewn with between 9 million to 15 million mines, the majority of them in fields that remain unmapped and unmarked. Fields, roads, roadside ditches, power lines, riverbanks, abandoned factories and cemeteries are mined throughout the country's 18 provinces. On some roads, even the wrecks of trucks are mined.

The mines have impoverished and cut off from the outside hundreds of thousands of people, even though they live on some of Africa's richest farmland. If people suspect an area is mined, they will not farm it. And if the 300,000 Angolan refugees outside the country return before the farmland is cleared, casualties can be expected to rise.

Dave Turner of the Mines Advisory Group, a British charity playing a leading role in clearing Moxico Province, says: 'It is a catastrophe waiting to happen."

Mine clearance tools and methods are decades behind mine technology. Flails, plows, rollers and rakes were designed to breach minefields during battle where casualties are expected. The machines miss many of the mines and work poorly on ground that is swampy, overgrown or uneven. So the most effective mine clearing work is still done by hand -- inch by inch, foot by foot, using a metal detector.

The detectors respond to any metal "signature" in the ground -- and clearing fields full of shrapnel, cartridge cases and other battle trash is dangerous and agonizingly slow. In Angola, even in the dry season, a team of 100 workers would need a month to clear a heavily littered battlefield the size of two soccer fields.

So far, more than 40 countries have joined the call for a permanent ban on the production, stockpiling, export and use of anti-personnel mines. Twenty-five countries have renounced or suspended the use of mines.

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Adding weight to the campaign, a group of military experts from 19 countries agreed with a Red Cross study concluding that anti-personnel mines are of questionable use in battle.

High-ranking support

Separately, 15 retired high-ranking U.S. officers came out for the ban in April in an open letter to President Clinton. Among the officers who signed were Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of Operation Desert Storm; Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Army Gen. John R. Galvin, former supreme allied commander in Europe.

The United States imposed a unilateral moratorium in 1992 on export sales of anti-personnel mines, but Washington has hedged on the use of the weapon by its forces.

The Clinton administration announced in May that the United States 'will aggressively pursue an international agreement to ban use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel land mines with a view to completing the negotiation as soon as possible.'

In other words, not quite yet.

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The United States would no longer use 'dumb' mines after 1999, the White House said, except in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas. But it would reserve the right to continue using "smart' mines -- ones that self-destruct or switch themselves off -- until alternatives are found.

But anti-mine campaigners say the failure rate of "smart" mines is unacceptably high, and ask how other countries can be persuaded to give up mines if the United States says it must be able to use some mines under some conditions.

'This policy is an attempt by the Pentagon to keep using an indiscriminate, exceptionally cruel weapon that does not belong in the arsenal of civilized nations," said Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, a longtime anti-mine campaigner.

Images of mounting civilian casualties may eventually lead reluctant nations to classify anti-personnel mines as an unacceptable weapon, just as they do poison gas, campaigners say. But a ban will not ease the staggering costs of assisting victims or getting rid of the mines already in place.

"If they are banned today, there will still be an impact for a hundred years," says Turner of the Mines Advisory Group. "The stockpiles are going to be causing problems for that long."

Pub Date: 10/08/96


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