We may not think there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But 11-year-old Zeynab certainly thinks they exist: 17 members of her immediate family were killed, including her mother, brothers and sisters. The weapon that killed this little girl’s family also ripped off her leg above the knee and scattered shrapnel throughout her body. It wasn’t delivered by Saddam Hussein, but by the British and American governments. One cluster bomb and Zeynab’s life and body have been torn apart. It is an astonishing and terrifying fact that every 30 minutes someone somewhere is killed or maimed by a landmine or unexploded ordnance.
The first time I met an amputee who had lost a limb in a landmine explosion was in the former Yugoslavia. I was living in Slovenia, and the local people began complaining that their currency was devaluing so rapidly that unless they spent their hard-earned cash immediately, it would be worthless. Within months the Slovenians were holding an Independence Day party. But while everybody was rejoicing and dancing in the streets around me, I couldn’t help but feel numb: I knew that the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, had control over the army, navy and airports of the former Yugoslavia. He simply was not going to allow the Slovenians’ bid for independence to go ahead. He knew Croatia would follow suit and that Croatia was economically essential to Serbia, as the largest source of tourist income.
I was right: within 24 hours of the party, the tanks were on their way. We were lucky that we managed to get through the borders into Austria. Against all the odds, we managed to set up a refugee crisis centre and help with aid in Croatia.
I spent the next two years travelling back and forth into the former Yugoslavia. It was outside Bihac that I heard an explosion and saw a child running towards me screaming, with an arm blasted off and blood pouring out of the socket like a petrol pump. I was in such shock that I couldn’t make out if it was a boy or a girl.
Ironically, I didn’t lose my leg in the war, although I spent the best part of two years in towns surrounded by landmines. I am convinced that I lost my leg for a reason: so that I could help men, women and especially children claim their lives back. Life is not about what we can do for ourselves. Making a difference while we are here is all that matters, especially for those who have the power to make real changes.
Two years ago I met a boy called Lai in Vietnam. He had just lost both of his feet, most of one leg and a hand to a landmine while he was walking to school. He was severely depressed when I met him but smiled when he realised I, too, was an amputee. I took my leg off and joked with him that he could borrow it, and I told him that soon we would be able to fit him with his very own prosthetic limbs. The thing he wanted more than anything, he told me, was a computer: he had lost most of his vision in one eye and now was unable to go to school. Some local American GIs had moved on and he missed them as they had let him use their computer. Fortunately for Lai – and thanks to the charity Adopt-A-Minefield – he now has those prosthetic limbs and is able to go to school.
I am afraid that people such as Lai are suffering because there is a common misconception that the problem of landmines was solved in the late 1990s. It certainly wasn’t and the list of casualties continues to grow at a truly frightening rate. I have been involved in the landmine issue for more than 12 years, and the fact that innocent children like Lai are still being killed and maimed every day angers and frustrates me.
I am also angered that whereas Lai is a civilian casualty of landmines and explosive remnants left from a war that ended in the 1970s, such tragedies continue to happen as a result of conflict in the 1980s (Mozambique, Angola), the 1990s (Bosnia, Croatia) and this new century (Afghanistan and Iraq).
The impact of these explosive remnants does not stop with children. Men and women desperate to survive and provide for their families are also being killed and maimed. And then there is the indirect impact. In countries such as Cambodia, Afghanistan and Angola, people are forced to live in poverty many miles from their old villages and farms because their land remains contaminated years after the official ceasefire has been signed.
Adopt-A-Minefield (the charity of which I am a founding patron) funds the clinic that is treating Lai. It has provided almost £1m to projects in Vietnam which are clearing landmines and helping survivors. These projects have made more than 400,000 square metres of land safe for their communities. Globally, Adopt-A-Minefield has raised in excess of £6m and is now the world’s largest non-governmental funder of mine action. It ensures that 100 per cent of donations go to mine clearance and projects which provide amputees with prosthetics and help them retrain or set up their own businesses.
Landmines and explosive remnants of war are a huge barrier to the development of the countries and communities they affect. The Mine Ban Treaty has now been signed and ratified by 143 countries, and the major non-signatory countries (such as the US and China) have landmine export bans that are effective. While the International Campaign to Ban Landmines would like to see all countries sign the treaty and move on to banning or restricting the use of anti-vehicle mines and cluster bombs, in reality very few landmines are being exported and deployed. This means that we have the opportunity actually to solve a problem affecting the developing world – and solve it for good. Every community that is freed from the scourge of these weapons is a community that can develop free from fear. Kosovo, for instance, has removed the very last landmine remaining from the 1990s conflict.
I am often frustrated by some of the myths that surround demining. One of these is that machines can solve the problem overnight. As a result of my experiences in the Balkans in the early 1990s, I have a built-in suspicion of complex, high-tech solutions over low-tech, more sustainable ones. Developed countries (especially the US) have a tendency to try to find high-tech, James Bond-type fixes for the problem of landmines. While I applaud any progress which enables demining to be more efficient, I can’t help feeling that the huge amounts of money spent on research and development could be better spent on getting the landmines out of the ground right now.
I listen carefully to organisations such as the Mines Advisory Group and the Halo Trust which actually clear landmines and I am always struck by how these highly technical solutions are either too expensive for developing countries, or just not robust enough to deal with the actual conditions on the ground (as opposed to the laboratories in which they were developed). The ability to maintain such equipment in countries and climates as diverse as Afghanistan, Angola, Sudan and Vietnam has to be questioned. More basic machinery can be used to clear vegetation, reduce the area that is suspected of being contaminated by mines and verify that the land has been cleared.
This leaves us with the reality that manual demining is still (and likely to remain) our best option. But the manual option has many other benefits. It relies on the simplest of tools, alongside patience and concentration; it involves local people in solving their own problem; and it provides much-needed employment in countries where unemployment and poverty are widespread. How many more lives would have been saved – and will be saved – if we put a higher proportion of our resources into a solution we know works (manual demining), as opposed to the Holy Grail-like search for a highly technical, space-age solution.
So where does all this leave you and me in terms of helping to solve this problem sooner rather than later? I believe that we can and must show our leaders the way forward. After all, if it had been left to politicians alone the Mine Ban Treaty would not have been established in the first place. We must do the right thing and support charities such as Adopt-A-Minefield which deliver immediate sustainable solutions, while pressing our leaders to get into the habit of clearing up after ourselves when war is judged (rightly or wrongly) to be the only course of action.
When explosive remnants of war littered Europe in 1945 and posed a significant barrier to economic and social development, our governments found the leadership and resources needed to solve the problem. We should show the same leadership qualities now to ensure that the needless injuries suffered by Zeynab and Lai become truly a thing of the past.