Girl’s US Visit Highlights Land Mine Struggle

Song Kosal had a clear goal in mind when she met with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington earlier this month. 

The 17-year-old Cambodian girl, who lost her leg in a land mine explosion 12 years ago, wanted to convince Powell of the destructive powers of these weapons and persuade the US to sign the 1997 international treaty to ban land mines.

Unfortunately, she said, her words most likely fell on deaf ears.

“We talked for 10 minutes,” Song Kosal said. “I told him about my leg, how I lost my leg. Then [Powell] talked with the Queen of Jordan for an hour.”

The attention Powell paid to Song Kosal reflects the US’s policy toward land mines in Cambodia: Politely offering sympathy, then focusing on another issue while quietly supporting countries that use land mines.

Since 1997, the US—along with China, Russia, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and the Republic of Congo—has refused to join the 1997 international treaty banning land mines. This policy was started by former US president Bill Clinton, who said land mines were a necessary deterrent that protected South Korea from its northern neighbor.

Thousands of mines remain in the demilitarized zone between those two countries.

US President George W Bush, who took officeearlier this year, was urged this month by the Inter­national Campaign to Ban Landmines to sign on to the treaty. During the second week of March, more than 200 land mine survivors and activists met in Washington to convince the new Bush administration to join other treaty signatories.

US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, however, said last week that the Bush administration has not changed the land mine policy, the Associated Press reported.

“We look to minimize the use, we do a lot of demining, but we also look at certain circumstances which we believe require us to refrain from adhering to the treaty,” Boucher was quoted by the AP as saying. “Until there are technical alternatives, we wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Since the 1997 international treaty to ban land mines, also known as the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, was drafted, 139 countries have signed on. Another 111 nations have ratified the treaty by stopping use and production of land mines and declaring that they will destroy stockpiles over the next four years and clear mined areas within 10 years.

The Bush administration’s refusal to sign the 1997 land mine ban angers Song Kosal, who was part of the delegation that met in Washington earlier this month.

“I think that it is not good because [government officials in the US] never experience what land mines do, and they never suffer in their country, suffer what the land mines do,” Song Kosal said.

Meeting Powell was the climax—or anti-climax—of Song Kosal’s whirlwind 17-day visit to Canada and the US during the tail end of the coldest season in North America, she said.

Her voice became shaky and she looked down as if in shame when she spoke of her experiences with land mines. Song Kosal said her family had just finished harvesting their rice crop in her village in Battambang province on the day she lost her leg to a mine.

She was running in the freshly culled rice field, collecting dry firewood, when she came upon a large tree that had fallen over. She climbed onto the tree and was suddenly thrown from it by the explosion of a hidden land mine. Song Kosal blacked out, and awoke later to find that her entire leg, from the hip down, was gone.

“At first, I was ashamed that I only had one leg,” she said. “No one else in my class at school had lost a leg, and I was not good at studying and my family was poor. I repeated the first grade three times and I felt very bad.”

Those bad feelings intensified over the next few years as she watched people in her village and family members be killed or maimed by land mines. Her neighbor, a soldier, also lost a leg to a land mine. And when she was 12 years old, her older brother was killed by a land mine while cutting bamboo in their village.

Battambang province has led the country in land mine and unexploded ordinance casualties and deaths for years. From January 2000 to January 2001, a total of 223 people were injured and 52 killed by mines or unexploded ordinance in Battambang according to a monthly report published by the Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System. This made up 31.8 percent of the total mine-related injuries or deaths for all of Cambodia. Banteay Meanchey province had the second-highest number of casualties, with 105 injured and 31 killed between January 2000 and January 2001.

Civilians account for 91 percent of the casualties, with military casualties making up only 9 percent, according to the report.

Land mine deaths and casualties have been steadily declining in recent years. In 1998, 1,829 people in Cambodia were the victims of land mines. This number dropped to 1,031 in 1999 and declined further in 2000 to 796, according to the report.

Though the US has not signed the 1997 treaty to ban land mines, the US has given $500 million to 37 countries—including Cambodia—for demining projects since 1993, said US Major Ralph Skeba, a military spokesman at the US Embassy in Cambodia.

Skeba said the US gives approximately $2.5 million to demining efforts in Cambodia, where an estimated six million land mines remain strewn across the country. A large portion of that money goes to Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System.

Skeba declined to comment directly on the US’s refusal to sign the treaty, but said he supports the use of land mines. “Some people, both out in the field and in this current [US] administration, believe land mines have a military purpose,” Skeba said. “I do too. [Banning land mines] would be like banning handguns.”

One cause for concern, however, is that the current pot of money that the US gives for de-mining projects might shrink with the Bush administration, Skeba said. The Non-Proliferation Anti-Terrorism De-Mining and Related Projects fund currently supplies between $50 million to $55 million annually for anti-terrorism and demining projects globally, Skeba said. Around 80 percent of that money goes toward demining projects. But he said the Bush administration might put more money into anti-terrorism efforts, taking away from the demining side.

And any money taken from demining would drastically hurt Cambodia.

The Cambodian Mine Action Center, Cambodia’s largest demining agency, was crippled recently after foreign donors became reluctant to continue their funding as reports of corruption and mismanagement within CMAC began cropping up during the past two years.

Last November, CMAC laid off close to 2000 employees because of a money shortage.

As recently as January, CMAC began “development projects” in an effort to gain revenue, said Heng Ratana, cabinet chief for CMAC. One of their recent projects involved filmmakers of the US film “Beneath the Banyan Trees,” who paid CMAC $2,200 to lay markers in a fake mine field where they were filming.

But CMAC’s financial situation remains strained by a budget of less than $10 million. In previous years, the agency spent as much as $13 million a year on its operations nationwide.

Song Kosal doesn’t know about CMAC’s funding struggles or the annual mine casualties in Cambodia.

But she is acutely conscious of the US’s refusal to sign the land mine ban and the effects of land mines. With the help of different NGOs she has been flown to countries as close as Vietnam and as far away as Morocco to discuss land mines with many of the world’s leaders.

“I’m nervous when I talk to all those people, but I have a strong determination to tell them about the dangers of land mines,” Song Kosal said.

Her family is especially proud of her. Never having left Battambang, she said her six sisters and one brother cannot imagine what a country like Austria or Australia is like, let alone what traveling to these countries would entail. Her parents also consider her lucky, but they keep her luck in perspective.

“Yes, my parents are happy, and they think I am lucky,” Song Kosal said. “But they still wish I had two legs. They say that would be luckier.”

 

 

 

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