The world is winning the landmine war

The global fight to clear unexploded bombs and landmines gets little coverage, but the work is changing millions of lives. David Randall reports

Square foot by square foot, the world is winning one of its few good wars: the one against landmines.

Last week, at a virtually unreported conference in Colombia, organisations tackling the mines – which continue killing and maiming long after the cause in which they were planted has been won or lost – heard that vast areas of the planet's former conflict zones are being cleared. There is still much work to be done, but progress so far offers the hope that, one day, they will be eradicated.

In the past 10 years, according to the newly published Landmine Monitor Report 2009, more than two million emplaced mines have been cleared, and some 44 million held in stockpiles destroyed. The past year has been the best ever for mine destruction, with an area the size of Brussels cleared. All told, the past decade has seen land equivalent to twice the area of London made safe.

The worldwide campaign against mines has also meant that the number of countries using them has been reduced from 15 in 1999 to just two now – Russia and Burma. Nearly 60 insurgent groups, from Somalia to the Philippines, have also stopped planting them. Only three countries – India, Pakistan and Burma – may have been producing anti-personnel mines in 2008.

However, the war is not yet won. The Landmine Monitor Report says that more than 70 states are believed to be what it calls "mine-affected". And land that remains to be cleared adds up to more than 3,000 square kilometres.

The Colombia conference brought together representatives from the 156 countries that are party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Steve Goose, the head of delegation for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, said of the treaty: "It has brought about a near halt to use of the weapon globally, the destruction of tens of millions of stockpiled mines and a huge expansion in mine clearance."

Christine Beerli, vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said: "Vast areas of previously contaminated land are now feeding some of the poorest communities on earth instead of sowing fear in them."

Eighty per cent of the world's states have signed the treaty, with only 39 states – including the US, China and Russia – not participating. But the Chinese are now starting to make sympathetic noises, and the US attended the conference for the first time. The Obama administration is presently reviewing Washington's stance. The US has not exported anti-personnel mines since 1992, produced them since 1997, or used them since 1991. What they have not yet done, however, is destroy their large stockpiles, believed to total 10.4m mines. China has 110m, and Russia 24.5m, according to the Landmine Monitor Report.

Some idea of the extraordinary work being done is given in last week's report of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), based in Manchester. It clears mines and other unexploded ordnance, employs thousands of people (95 per cent of whom are national staff, some of them disabled by mines), and now operates in 17 countries. It has just started working in Gaza, is returning to Afghanistan, and will next year join other organisations in being the first to start clearing unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Colombia.

The problems can be immense. A greater tonnage of bombs was dropped on Laos in the conflicts of 1963-74 than were dropped on Europe by all sides during the Second World War. Even today, 35 years after the Indochina wars finally ended, a quarter of all villages in Laos are littered with bombs, mortars and cluster munitions, and there may, according to a 2007 Human Rights Watch report, be anything from nine million to 27 million items of unexploded ordnance remaining. MAG, with the aid of funding from groups as diverse as the US and UK governments, Irish Aid and Imperial Tobacco, has, in the year to June 2009, cleared more than 6.5 million square metres of land in the country. Since 2007, 115 schools have been declared free of UXOs, and many of them returned to use.

In neighbouring Cambodia, some 40 per cent of the population live alongside the still-unexploded remnants of war. Not only does this mean casualties (1,223 men, women and children from January 2006 to June 2009), but whole villages are unable to use the land they adjoin. In Phlov Meas, Battambang province, crops could not be grown. The community chief, Vai Chamroeun, said: "Villagers were afraid of mines so they didn't expand the land for cultivation." Then came the MAG team, which cleared two minefields. "Now their lives are getting better," said Vai Chamroeun. "Today people live in safety." More than 90 per cent of them now earn a living by growing corn, sugar cane, beans and sesame; three wells have been dug, water filters installed, and there are plans for a pond. Across the country, more than three million square metres have been cleared, 6,199 landmines removed, and 22,630 other items of UXO destroyed – all in the year up to June 2009.

Those 12 months also saw large tracts of other countries made safe. In the Sudan, 10.7 million sq m were cleared (and 47,000 UXOs destroyed); in Sri Lanka, the area cleared was 1.7 million sq m; and in Lebanon, 11 million sq m were made safe, and 20,762 cluster bombs removed and destroyed – the legacy of the brief but ferocious conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. The story of one man, told in the MAG report, shows what such clearance can mean. "Adnan Fakih has been a farmer for the past 31 years, since the age of 10 ... When the land was hit by cluster bombs, the 400,000 sq m where he grew wheat, sesame, and vegetable was reduced to a quarter the size, due to the danger from unexploded bombs. With his income substantially lower, Fakih was forced to take out loans to support his wife and six children. MAG started clearing the land in November 2008 and by the end of April this year teams had found and destroyed 265 cluster munitions and 126 UXOs."

Now he can farm again, children can walk his fields, and his produce can help to feed the area.

In Chad, one of the places made safe was Kouba Olanga in the Sahara desert, which is the last water point for 190 miles in every direction. More than 2,500 UXOs were cleared from this small area, and the town and water point can now be confidently used by 2,000-3,000 locals and nomads. In Angola, the clearance of UXOs not only gave back access to water towers in villages such as Musseringinge, but also played a role in restoring democracy. The country's first free elections in 16 years were held in September last year, an event made possible partly through MAG teams providing safe routes through minefields to polling stations.

MAG is also one of the organisations starting to tackle the world's vast stockpile of guns. There are, according to globalpolicy.org, some 600 million small arms and light weapons in circulation around the world. This month, in the Democratic Republic of Congo teams will destroy their 100,000th weapon. And in Rwanda, MAG began a programme with the army last November to start destroying the huge amounts of small arms in the country. Part of the project is the wonderfully titled National Weapons Destruction Workshop, which is, according to the officer in charge, Lt John Musafiri, decommissioning 250 small arms each day. "We are very happy," he says, "to destroy things that have done so much harm."

But these dirty little devices continue to cause thousands of casualties. Last year, there were 5,197 (1,266 were deaths), an appalling number, but greatly reduced from the 8,000-plus annual figure for between 1999 and 2003.

Some armed groups are impervious to international pressure. There are now widespread reports of the Taliban planting mines in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But, with such exceptions, major progress is being made. As Lou McGrath, the chief executive of MAG, said to the IoS last week: "It is an enormous task, a never-ending situation. But the steps that have been taken represent a huge success. We are starting to win the war against mines."

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