According to Freedom Fields USA, a Carmel based non-profit “dedicated to the humanitarian removal of landmines in war-torn countries,” there are roughly 70 million landmines in at least 90 countries around the world, most of which are no longer at war. Landmines kill or injure approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people each year, the majority of them children. Mike Croll, whose books on the topic include The History of Landmines and Landmines in War and Peace, puts it this way: “Around every 22 minutes, one person somewhere in the world is killed or injured by a landmine.”
As explosive devices, landmines date back to the 14th century, but they did not feature regularly in warfare until the second half of the 19th century. During the US Civil War, the Confederate Navy developed floating mines, designed to explode on target. These early “torpedoes” were responsible for sinking 29 ships and damaging 14 others, Croll writes. US Brigadier-General Gabriel J. Rains first experimented with land-based explosive “booby traps” while commanding troops against the Seminole Indians in Florida in 1840. By 1862, he had devised artillery shells that could be exploded by pulling trip wires or by being stepped on. On May 4, 1862, a scout on horseback, near Yorktown, Virginia, became the first person killed by a pressure-activated landmine. Rains’ landmines, used extensively during the Civil War, were so powerful that when five landmines with his signature fuses were discovered in 1960, their powder was “still quite dangerous,” Croll writes.
The British adopted the technology during their African campaigns in the 1880s. Ironically, in 1884—shortly before he and his fellow defenders would perish in the Siege of Khartoum—British General George Gordon wrote: “Landmines are the thing for defense in the future. We have covered the works with them and they have done much execution.”
But it was during the First World War that landmines became a staple of war, designed to counter the new tanks. Anti-tank and smaller anti-personnel mines were ubiquitous in World War II, which also saw the introduction of non-metal landmines (harder-to detect), first encountered by American soldiers in Lorraine, France, in 1944.
In 1945, the US Army attributed 2.5 percent of combat fatalities and 20.7 percent of tank losses in the war to landmines. Many of the large minefields laid across North Africa remain today, often buried under decades of shifting sands, and in Europe World War II minefields are still being cleared in Holland and France.
Ever since, the proliferation of landmines has “run out of control,” says Croll. “The face of the earth has been scarred with more than 400 million mines since 1939, with 65 million of these laid in the last 20 years.” Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Israel, Syria, Bosnia, Kosovo, Burundi, South Sudan—this is just a partial list of the countries where landmines still kill and maim people, often while they are carrying out everyday chores. Their presence makes land unusable for farming, schools, or general living, hindering the economic and political growth of countries struggling to rebuild. Those who survive landmine accidents usually cannot return to the workforce. The cycle of destruction and despair continues.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines—headed by activist Jody Williams, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts—was successful in drafting the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, known as the Ottawa Treaty. The treaty went into effect in 1999, and today 161 countries have signed it. China, Russia—and the US—remain hold-outs, although the US State Department Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement’s website states that it is “proud to be the world’s single largest financial supporter of humanitarian mine action.”
Aircraft and artillery can lay a field of landmines in minutes that can take years to remove. The first problem is identification. The most common method remains manual demining with prodders, metal detectors, trained dogs, and, believe it or not, extremely large rats. Deminers are heavily trained by the NGOs, charities, or commercial mining companies that hire them and are paid well for their efforts, according to Reeves and Koplin. “In Afghanistan, for example, deminers earn double the average daily wage and the work is considered to be prestigious,” Koplin notes. They live in tented camps near the sites. Needless to say, the process is extremely slow and tedious—and remains very dangerous.
It also doesn’t always work. While millions of square meters of land in more than 60 countries around the world have been identified as “suspect” and diligently cleared by the international demining community, much of this work has not yielded mines. In many cases, cumbersome operator-driven machines outfitted with “flails” (rotating cylinders with chains that churn up the ground) and massive rollers have torn up farmland, placed the drivers of the machines in extreme danger, and sometimes even left mines behind or thrown them outside of the cleared area. “No method of mechanical demining is 100 percent effective,” explains Reeves. “There are so many variables that it always requires two methods of clearance. What becomes most important is to be quick and to be economical.”
According to Reeves and Koplin, landmines cost as little as three dollars to produce but as much as $3,000 to remove. It is difficult and expensive to transport conventional mine clearing equipment to developing countries, and then get them where they need to be in places where the necessary infrastructure may or may not exist. The machines are complicated to maintain, and spare supplies are not easy to come by. “[Mine clearance] is a rule of thumb industry that grew up with fast and loose requirements,” explains Reeves. All of which suggests that finding a faster, safer, and more cost-effective way of detecting and disarming minefields would be of significant benefit to the demining community—which is where HRI comes in.