FAYA-LARGEAU, Chad - Until a few weeks ago, the first and only land mine that United Nations mine-clearing team members had removed from this war-torn country was the one they took care of accidentally. They drove over it.
The force of the anti-tank mine explosion tossed the engine and front tires off the team's Land Rover, shot the clutch pedal through the truck's floor - breaking the driver's leg - and sent the team's leader tumbling through the air.
He landed 30 feet away with blood streaming from his nose and ears. "It felt like I had done 10 rounds with Mike Tyson," recalls Lorne O'Brien, a retired Canadian army colonel who is leading the U.N.-sponsored mission.
He and his colleagues were lucky. No one was killed. But the accident highlighted a fundamental problem about clearing mines in Chad, a Central African nation three times the size of California. No one is sure how many mines there are or where they are buried.
"We have no realistic picture of the mine situation here," says Peter Willers, a mine-clearing expert for the German aid organization HELP who is in charge of clearing the mine fields near Faya-Largeau. Willers spent four years coordinating de-mining efforts in the former Yugoslavia, where he had the benefit of detailed maps showing the location of minefields. "Here we have no real information," he says.
During Chad's three decades of civil war, the battling armies never kept records of the location and size of the minefields, O'Brien says. So the de-mining effort started two years ago without anyone's having a clear idea of the problem's size.
Initial estimates by the United Nations set the number of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines at between 50,000 and 70,000. But after some field surveys, the estimate rose to more than 1 million - one mine for every seven people - plus an unknown number of unexploded bombs and shells. And the survey team is still counting.
The one certainty about the mine problem is that the number of victims is growing. Since 1998, more than 130 people have been killed or seriously injured by mines in Chad. That figure, however, is considered low because no one kept records of mine-related deaths during Chad's wars, and incidents now are rarely reported because the communication system is so poor.
"We only find out about victims haphazardly," says O'Brien, who estimates that there are thousands of victims.
Here in Faya-Largeau, a brutally hot Sahara oasis of palm trees, artesian wells and camel caravans adrift in a sea of shifting sands, people live as if under siege. A ring of mines several miles wide - the legacy of Libyan occupation in the 1970s and 1980s - maintains a stranglehold on the city, making travel in and out perilous.
Some nomads coming to the city for the first time do not know the safe passages and stumble into a minefield. Last month, in what has become a regular occurrence here, members of a five-person, seven-camel caravan were seriously injured when they hit an anti-tank mine.
Inside the whitewashed city walls, piles of unexploded grenades, shells and other armaments lie on street corners, where children use them as toys.
When mine blasts occur, little medical assistance is available to help save the victims. Faya-Largeau is more than 500 miles north of the capital city of N'Djamena, where one hospital is outfitted to deal with mine blast injuries. N'Djamena is four to five hours away by plane - if one is available.
In other parts of Chad - a country with only a few hundred miles of paved road, and 7,500 phones for a population of more than 7 million - evacuation is so difficult that it takes an average of four to five days to get medical care for victims.
Chad's mine problem is part of the legacy of 30 years of civil war and ethnic unrest. From the time the country won independence from France in 1960, its history reads like a dangerous game of king of the hill.
One faction rises to power, and opposition forces arm themselves to unseat it. North has been pitted against south, Christian against Muslim, the conflicts complicated by intervention by France and Libya. Each army has fired its shells and laid its own mines. Whether victorious or defeated, the army withdraws without removing the mines. Most of them were laid by Libya, which occupied a strip of northern Chad during the 1970s and 1980s and supported Chadian rebels seeking to overthrow the government. An offensive by the Chadian government in 1987 defeated the Libyans, forcing the fleeing army to abandon millions of dollars worth of aircraft, tanks and other vehicles.
In 1990, rebel leader Gen. Idriss Deby overthrew the government and has led the country ever since. Opposition activity is now brewing in the northern Tibesti region, where former Defense Minister Youssouf Togoimi is leading an effort to unseat Deby. This newest rebel force is suspected of redeploying mines left by the Libyans.
As many as 102 million land mines are deployed throughout the world. Afghanistan, with an estimated 7 million mines hidden beneath its soil, recently earned the distinction of being the most heavily mined country in the world. Cambodia may have as many as 6 million.
The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, led by Jody Williams, helped focus attention on the mine problem and won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work in 1997. But Chad's struggle with mines has gone largely unnoticed.
"I call Chad Africa's forgotten problem," O'Brien says. "It's completely isolated. There is no window on Chad, so it doesn't get attention. It's not of any economic importance."
Chad has recently gained some attention. Backed by more than $5 million from the United States, along with aid from France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Libya, the mine clearing got under way two years ago. Last year, the U.S. Army trained more than 100 de-miners as well as instructors and support staff to begin the project.
In January, organizers began a detailed survey of the minefields.
For the United States, it is the second-largest assistance program for Chad other than food aid.
"It is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. There are 1 million mines and unexploded ordnance. The relative need is great," says U.S. Ambassador to Chad Christopher E. Goldthwait.
But for all of the assistance, progress has been slow.
In northern Chad, the Sahara reshapes itself hourly, covering, uncovering and moving mines, shells and other remnants of war. In the south, heavy rains dislodge mines and send them to new places.
Last month, the government of Chad cleared the first mines in Faya-Largeau.
Escorted by young soldiers in sunglasses and head cloths to protect them from the blowing sand, Goldthwait and an entourage of local leaders met over soda and dates. Then, in the desert outskirts of Faya-Largeau, residents, dignitaries and journalists gathered on a hillside to watch as a freshly trained group of de-miners detonated a pile of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.
The explosion shook the ground, sent a fist-shaped cloud of gunpowder, shrapnel and dust hundreds of feet into the air and brought a crowd of residents to their feet, cheering at the sight.