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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stop Land Mine Terror

MONTREUX, Switzerland -- What Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the International Red Cross, calls "the new form of genocide" may be attached to a harmless looking bit of blue or green plastic that resembles a butterfly. He isn't exaggerating. He is talking about land mines, an old, often simple device which has proliferated around the world to create a grave epidemic of deaths and casualties.

The Red Cross estimates there are now over 100 million mines in 37 countries on five continents, and another 100 million in stock.

They not only kill and maim thousands every month, they prolong destruction long after wars end. They may lie active in the ground for 40 or 50 years. As one expert said, a child can be victim of a mine laid by his grandfather.

They undermine relief efforts, blocking access and denying subsistence to refugees who would go home and earn their living on their land again.

Anti-personnel mines are an indiscriminate weapon of terror. The Red Cross would like international conventions amended to ban the production, export and use of mines, as they have banned dum-dum bullets and chemical warfare.

It's a good thought, but it won't help soon. Mines are cheap to make, some cost less that $1. Thirty-five countries make and sell them, with China the leading exporter, but guerrilla and insurgent forces, which don't sign international conventions, can also produce their own.

Anti-mine technology remains mostly at the primitive level developed in World War I. It is slow and expensive. In Afghanistan, where some 10 million mines are planted, it is estimated that the cost of finding and removing one is $2, 000 and that at the present rate of clearing it will take 4, 300 years to get them all.

The best mine detectors now available are trained dogs. When they find a field, standard procedure is for men to crawl along on their bellies with a prod, so that the upward and outward explosion won't reach them.

It's dirty work. and yet, people are willing to do it, and other people, mostly ex-military men, are doing their best to find a better way. They haven't got very far for lack of research money -- money is still pouring into research for weapons improvement by the multi-billions, and barely trickling into detection and clearance.

I asked Brian Halliwell of Britain's Royal Ordnance how much and how long he thought it would take to make a cost-effective sniffer device. It seems the best bet, since it reacts to the odor of the explosive and doesn't depend on detecting metal. Many mines now are plastic, or have a minimum of metal, but they can't fully contain faint vapor from their explosives.

He said $10 million, and maybe a year or two. That wouldn't buy you a fighter plane. "With time and money, we could solve any of these problems", he told me. But there isn't enough interest -- yet.

Mine-clearing has traditionally been a military concern. But clearing a road with specially adapted tanks or bulldozers is very different from clearing a field for farmers or a mountain trail for shepherds and children. Britain simply gave up after the Falklands war, marking large uncleared areas.

That won't do for whole regions, like Cambodia, Iraq, Iran, Guatemala, Mozambique, Somalia, etc. Just last week, a U. N. food relief plane was shot down in Angola and the pilot successfully crash-landed, but in a mine field. He died after he stepped out of the plane. Some 800, 000 mines have been planted in Yugoslavia, and 60, 000 more are being laid each week.

In an age of so much weapon sophistication, new technologies could be adapted to fight this faceless attack on innocents. Lord Judd, former British defense minister, says 50 percent of World War II casualties were civilians. They are 90 percent of current war victims. British military engineer Alistair Craib, an earnest, matter-of-fact humanitarian, lists ground penetrating radar and infra-red imaging as well as sniffers under study.

But there isn't a concerted will or adequate coordination of research. For the first time, the United Nations has named a de-mining expert, Patrick Blagden, to create momentum. He needs a little money and support. It's fine to feed the maimed who can't care for themselves, and distribute prostheses to some. It would be much better to find the way to get rid of the mines. Flora Lewis