The Common Good
March-April 1997

Victims After the Cease-Fire

by Anne Wayne | March-April 1997

The international movement to ban landmines.

Two years ago I protested on the Perth causeway, at rush hour on a Monday morning, to draw attention to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. My father rang me that night to tell me about his day. A taciturn man, my Dad is not given to words unless they’re necessary. I have rarely seen him pick up the phone voluntarily. My stomach sank as he began, "My bus was delayed this morning by protesters waving placards saying, ‘Landmines Kill Civilians.’ I wonder what good they thought they were doing?"

Silently I tensed as Dad continued, "It reminded me of the Vietnam War protesters. I thought they were students without a clue about life. Now I agree wholeheartedly with them and I thought, ‘This landmines issue is something Anne would protest.’" Speechless, but breathing again, I listened to Dad laughingly finish, "Then I looked over and saw you in the group in the middle of the causeway, talking with police. Don’t worry love, I broke it gently to your mother. Someday we’ll think about landmines the way we think about the Vietnam War." An astonishing change in mindset for my father!

It is such a mindset change that author Paul Davies and photographer Nic Dunlop are hoping to effect with their book War of the Mines: Cambodia, Landmines and the Impoverishment of a Nation. Both came to the project as a result of personal experience with landmine victims. They were shocked at the extent of civilian injury and death from landmines, which continue killing after a cease-fire. Davies and Dunlop became convinced that "to witness such events without acting would amount to complicity" in a world where every 20 minutes someone is killed or maimed by an anti-personnel landmine. The outcome is a meticulous case study of the effect of landmine warfare in Cambodia.

The book opens with a lucid chronology of Cambodia’s political history, making it obvious from the beginning that the War of the Mines suffers from its timeliness. It is inevitable that, since its publication in 1994, political events in Cambodia have moved on. Yet when read as a detailed study of the production, effect, and global complicity in the use of landmines, it is a timeless and valuable text.

The chapters move easily from the analytical to the personal, starting with an overview of the problem in a country "where there may be as many landmines...as Cambodians." Davies outlines the horrifying effects on the poor rural communities of Cambodia, showing that the landmine is "the perfect weapon for a war of total social, economic, cultural, and, ultimately, military attrition."

The authors concentrate on one district in the Battambang province to particularize the savage statistics which show that one in 236 persons in Cambodia is an amputee. Through oral interviews, with accompanying photographs, we hear the stories of a people who know the land they work is riddled with mines but are "forced by their poverty to accept such risk taking as part of the reality of day-to-day life."

THE IMPACT OF War of the Mines is strengthened by numerous, sensitive photographs which add to the immediacy and urgency of the text. In fact they are clearly as important as the words to forwarding the account. Without them it would be difficult to visualize the terrifying statistics and tempting to give way to unctuous sympathy. While the photos document the full horror of injuries, I was surprised to find even those showing people with prosthetics to be filled with a sense of movement and action. Ultimately the reader is left with an image of the people’s resilience and dignity.

Davies finishes with an analysis of the global situation as he builds up to a crescendo in his convincing argument for a total ban against landmines. He clearly establishes that "mines are developed for the mutual benefit of the manufacturers and armies of industrialized nations [including the United States]...who had never experienced the impact of mines on their own territories."

In the wake of President Clinton’s "new" landmine policy ("There is nothing new about it....They support a ban, but not now, not any time soon, who knows when," says Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy), the book’s case is more relevant than ever. The last round of international discussions about landmines was held in Ottawa in October 1996. In a surprise move, the Canadian Minister for Foreign and International Affairs invited all states to return to Canada to make a treaty for a total ban on anti-personnel mines by the end of 1997. War of the Mines unambiguously shows that this unexpected chance for governments to opt for a ban is the only sane and defensible decision.

War of the Mines: Cambodia, Landmines and the Impoverishment of a Nation. By Paul Davies. Photographs by Nic Dunlop. Pluto Press (distributed by Westview Press), 1994.

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