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One of the biggest scourges in the world today is a remnant of past wars: landmines. I became aware of this problem while living in Cambodia, which has the world's highest percentage of amputees. Left over from the horrific 1970s Khmer Rouge regime are some 10,000 mines, lying in the ground, waiting to be detonated. In and around Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, I had the opportunity of visiting various demining projects and factories producing prosthetic limbs, both of which are methods of dealing with the problem. As is the case in many countries, the mines were either laid in a haphazard manner, or the plans showing their strategic location have not yet been salvaged. Because of this, the mines pose a constant, invisible threat to the rural population. It is estimated that one person in the world is injured by a mine every 20 minutes.

There are still mines in 60 countries throughout the world. The main producers are China, Russia, and North Korea, and mines are still being planted at an amazing rate. Children who step on mines most often die from the shock of the explosion. Adults lose limbs and are then unable to work. Amputees usually resort to begging in public places, such as markets, to earn a living. When fields contain mines, farmers obviously avoid them, which causes the neglect of certain crops and the loss of livelihood for the farmers. Mines also can block access to essential firewood and potable water, and impede the circulation of health care teams, when the mines are planted along roads. Mine victims also require very urgent transfusions of large quantities of blood. This makes screening difficult and contributes to the spread of AIDS.

In 1997, a Mine Ban Treaty against the production, use, transfer, and stockpiling of mines was proposed at the international Ottawa Convention. It has so far attracted 139 signatories, but 47 countries have still not signed the treaty. Some of these want to preserve the profit they derive from landmines; others, such as the United States, cite military obligations--e.g., protecting South Korea from North Korea.

I think it is essential to encourage more widespread adherence to the treaty; of course, it would not eliminate the problem altogether, as most of the production is illegal anyway, but it would definitely help in, at least, slowing down the propagation of landmines.

As far as remedial action is concerned, demining is essential. Unfortunately, the process is very dangerous (accidents are frequent), time-consuming (fields are cleared a square foot at a time) and expensive (it costs about $3 to make a mine and $1,000 to clear one).

The fabrication of prosthetic limbs also is important. A well-crafted artificial limb can restore someone's mobility and livelihood. Unfortunately, the average prosthesis costs $1,000, and in Third World countries, where landmines are the most prevalent, average salaries, such as $25 a month in Cambodia, do not come close to covering the costs.

In the fight against landmines, it is, therefore, important to support an international ban on mines and to raise much-needed funds for demining and prosthetic limb factories. Finally, we must strive to increase awareness of  this problem, which the world too often tends to forget.

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