The Definite Explainer on What Landmines Are and Why They Suck

Ortega had been in the military for more than 11 years before his injury. He had trained with the Colombian army's special units and had participated in numerous operations against guerrilla encampments. He knew about the risks his job entailed, and he thanked God as soon as he understood that he was still alive. After the explosion, he watched through the numbing pain at the faces of his squad members as their carefully planned attack disintegrated.

"They looked horror-stricken," he said. "It was the first time it happened to someone within our unit. I was hit and another one of us was also hit by the same mine. It was a minefield with 250 high-powered antipersonnel mines."

Ortega heard the first shots shortly after. Guerrillas were firing at them from the camp. He heard shouts and watched as some of the men fired back. One of the soldiers called for an emergency aircraft as they tried to fend off the attack. Slowly, Ortega became aware of the fact that his right leg had been blown off almost completely and that his left leg had been broken. He was crippled and could barely crawl.

The shots eventually subsided as the guerrillas escaped. Those soldiers who were still well surrounded the injured and tried to stabilize them while the emergency aircraft came back for them. The plane arrived almost two hours later, Ortega says, and flew him to the Leo XIII Hospital in Medellín.

A Problem With No Easy Solution

Mines are cheap and effective weapons that can kill a man while raising a general alarm and stopping a strike force's advance. In that sense, they offer unparalleled tactical benefits. Mining a field is also relatively inexpensive, giving them an attractive financial benefit. But demining even a small area implies huge physical risks and financial costs. The price of manufacturing a mine ranges from $3 to $75, while the price of removing one ranges from $350 to $1000.

Despite their apparent advantages, however, mines are barely used nowadays. They are "dumb," self-sufficient weapons that will explode as long as the necessary pressure is exerted or released, and they don't distinguish between participants in a conflict and unwary civilians. The wounds they cause can require long and expensive operations to treat -- the initial hospital stay from a mine-related injury costs on average $4000, according to the World Health Organization. As a consequence of their terrible human cost, there were reports of new mine use in only eight countries in the world last year.

According to The History of Landmines by former Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal Officer Henry Kroll, the modern mine's direct ancestors were first created by Confederate soldiers who refurbished artillery shells during the American Civil War (the mine's indirect ancestors are caltrops, a four pointed item used by the Roman armies). The variety the Confederates created was perfected throughout the world's subsequent conflicts, gaining in durability and destructive force, until, in the words of Kroll, the "mine came of age" during World War II.

Landmines later became a weapon of choice for government and guerrilla forces during the Cold War. Millions were planted throughout countries like Cambodia, and at the height of their popularity, more than 50 nations produced them en masse.

But when the Cold War ended, tens of millions of landmines remained buried across four continents. The total was 60 to 70 million, according to State Department estimates; 110 million, according to the United Nations. Minefields at that time covered an area greater than ten times the size of New York City. They were mostly located far away from major cities, in fields, forests, and trails that were slowly being occupied by rural populations.

By the end of the 1980s, NGOs started noticing the impact of landmines on civilians in some of the world's poorest countries. In 1992, six of these organizations founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the group that would be ultimately responsible for the nearly worldwide restriction of the weapon.

"There wasn't one particular event [that triggered the creation of the ICBL]," Kasia Derlicka, the current Director of ICBL told Univision News. "The movement grew over the years with people and organizations working on the ground and seeing the devastation landmines caused, and growing convinced that the only way to stop them was to ban them."

For more than five years, the ICBL pushed for the passage of a comprehensive treaty to disallow the use, production, and stockpiling of landmines with the help of the Canadian government, delegations from several nations, NGOs and the aid of celebrities like Princess Diana and Jordan's Queen Noor. In November 1997, the organization and Jody Williams, its director at the time, received the Nobel Peace Prize. A few weeks later, 121 countries signed the historic Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and Their Destruction, known as the Ottawa Treaty for the city in which it was signed. (The U.S. and Russia were notorious absentees.) Colombia ratified the treaty in 2000, and just like the other 160 current state parties to the treaty, agreed to destroy its stockpile of mines, to ban the use of the weapon, to demine all affected areas and to offer adequate assistance to all victims.

Mines, however, are still used regularly in the country's ongoing war, one of the world's longest-running civil conflicts. New fields are mined every day and the guerrillas are choosing ever more potential targets to hit the armed forces. The percentage of military victims in Colombia is, in fact, disproportionately high compared to the rest of the world. According to PAICMA, 62 percent of those killed and maimed by mines were members of the armed forces, almost three times the rate found in most of the other nations affected by these weapons. The government, despite its best efforts, can't keep up with the growing number of victims, according to several NGOs.

"While they are still in the armed forces, they receive all the treatment they need," Mario González, the Director of the Fundación Víctimas Minas Antipersonales (VICMA), an organization that offers job training and medical donations to civilians and retired military mine victims. "Afterwards, they are forgotten. They don't receive sufficient educational and financial support."

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