Wrong turning in a minefield

Diana was wrong, says Mike Croll, mine clearance expert. The landmine ban is morally right, but a waste of time. It will make no difference to those whose lives and limbs are in danger.

I first went into this quite starry-eyed," says Mike Croll. "In Kuwait, I saw what landmines can do to civilian populations, so I went out to Cambodia on my white charger. Then in one of the first villages, we said, `How do you fancy us clearing your mines?' expecting a resounding cheer, and they said no. They said, `We have a choice: landmines around our village or the Khmer Rouge in it.' It was that stark."

As the International Campaign to Ban Landmines rolls forward, the realities of the problem become sidelined. The weapons themselves, in the eyes of many in the Western world, are perceived as tools of spite, deliberately planted to maim and kill the innocent. The practical problem of mine clearance has become a moral crusade. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle: innocents blown up in peacetime often owe their lives to the same landmines. And mines in the ground don't know they've been banned.

Croll, 36, has considerable experience of the subject. After university, he joined the Royal Engineers, and specialised in bomb disposal and later in counter-terrorism. He co-ordinated and managed hands-on mine and ordnance disposal in Kuwait after the Gulf war. When he left the army, he joined the HALO trust, a charitable mine-clearance organisation, and set up the first Cambodian programme. Spells in Mozambique, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro were interspersed with an MA in emergency management, followed by a two-year contract as operations manager for UN mine clearance in Mozambique.

Since 1992, he has been researching the subject, "partly because I realised that a full history had never been done", and the result is a very accessible book, The History of Landmines. Landmines in one form or another have been in use for the past 2,500 years. Until human beings can sort out their disagreements without armed conflict, they are a fact of war. They slow down advancing troops and protect vulnerable targets.

Croll essentially agrees with the principle of the landmine ban. He also thinks it a waste of time. "The ban is morally right, but it's not going to make a single iota of difference. It hasn't removed any mines in the ground, it hasn't saved a single leg, and it has distorted people's perception of the issue. I think that most people in the UK now believe landmines have been banned and that there's no problem. That isn't the case.

"Roughly 65 countries have yet to sign up. And signatories and non-signatories are divided quite clearly between the countries that see war as a distinct possibility - India and Pakistan, Israel, Belize, Korea and so forth - and those who feel secure - including Britain and most of Western Europe. Kuwait hasn't signed up. Finland hasn't signed up: sitting on a border with Russia, they aren't going to drop their defences."

The millions of landmines scattered across the world can be removed, if the political will, and the consequent funding, is in place. "The accepted wisdom is that there are so many mines out there that we'll be clearing them for a thousand years. That's rubbish. By the end of the Second World War in 1945 there were a fairly well-documented 110 million landmines scattered around Europe and North Africa. By 1947, 85 per cent had been cleared. It just takes strategic thinking."

Croll, and most of the mine clearance profession, believe that the figures commonly quoted are at best the inaccuracies of the partially informed, and at worst, the disingenuousness of vested interests. We shouldn't be thinking about numbers. Mines come, generally, in clumps. As mine clearance is ultimately a matter of combing contaminated ground inch by inch, it takes little more time to clear an acre seeded with 1,000 mines than one seeded with 100.

The figures themselves are highly questionable, based originally on a guesstimate. When HALO began the clearance operation in Afghanistan, no one knew the level of contamination, and a UN figure of 35 million was slapped on. When a HALO engineer pointed out that this meant the Russians laid over 10,000 mines every day of the nine-year occupation, it was haggled down to 10 million. At an annual lifting rate of 10,000 mines a year, it's easy to see where the thousand-year statistic came from. The likelihood is that the figure is far lower. But it was adopted as official, and every estimate since has been based on it. Thus Cambodia, thought to be less heavily mined, has 7 million, and Mozambique officially has 2-3 million.

Deminers argue against the figures, but are often hampered by a media who prefer big numbers and photo-opportunities to more mundane realities. "In Mozambique," says Croll, "I realised very early on that there was an absolute maximum of around 200,000 mines. When Western journalists came to report I'd tell them 200,000, which would have taken about seven years to clear. And time after time, I'd read their pieces afterwards saying that there were 2-3 million there."

They also face communication difficulties. "Most of the bodies that work in the field are humanitarian groups, and are by nature pacifist and suspicious of the military. Most deminers are former soldiers like myself. It makes communication very difficult." Despite the fact that they are on the same side in the same battle, aid agencies and deminers are often seen as opposing factions.

Croll is also worried by the effects of well-meaning attempts by aid agencies to address the problem. "In somewhere like Mozambique, you see a lot of amputees. About a third of those lost their limbs in a mine accident, the rest through things like gangrene and infections untreated through shortages of medicine and money, road traffic accidents: more mundane causes. You can't say `Well, you lost your leg in a mine accident so we'll give you special treatment. But sorry, fella, you lost yours in a road accident, tough'. You can't single out one individual source of injury. It's just so arbitrary. And it distorts the statistics: you're hardly going to get someone saying he lost a leg through gangrene when he'll only get treated if he's a landmine victim."

It is even rumoured that the little Angolan girl whose image, sitting on the Princess of Wales's knee, has become so familiar, was not a victim of a landmine at all, but of an aerial attack. Landmine victims tend to be undecorative: covered in shrapnel, leaking and ugly about the eyes. So television uses an innocent, and another nail is banged into the coffin of statistics.

"Diana benefited a great deal more from her association with the mines issue than the mines issue benefited in return. The prosthetic clinic in Angola that she visited is besieged by journalists doing follow-up stories, but they haven't benefited financially whatsoever. The ban treaty was only four months away from being signed when she got involved. She made landmines more of a public issue, but there's been no increase in funding for mine clearance, either privately or governmentally. The Diana Memorial Fund hasn't given a dime to mine clearance, and she didn't leave it a dime," says Croll.

The main problem for mine clearance is funding. The cosy first world conscience-salve of a ban has virtually diverted cash available for clearance. "The Soros Foundation gave $3m to the ban campaign, which would have kept a 200-man clearance operation going for a year. The Canadian government put $100m towards the `mines issue', but none of it was allocated to clearance. And in the same month last year as the Oslo mines conference, which apparently cost $25m, the Afghan clearance agency actually ran out of money altogether.

"I dedicated my book," says Croll, "to those who walk the talk. This issue is like a huge hot air balloon. The more people chip in, the more the balloon gets inflated. And the deminers are left on the ground saying `Hey, guys, this is the reality of the situation.' There's a wall between the moralists and the pragmatists. The pragmatists get on with doing what they do best, which is practical solutions, and the moralists deal with esoteric questions." The real battle is going to be won by people with sticks and trowels, not by PR initiatives and hot air.

`The History of Landmines' is published by Leo Cooper on 26 August at pounds 18.95. A Channel 4 documentary on the subject will be screened on the same day

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