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Nobelist Says Women, Children
Suffer Most from Land Mines
November 29, 1999

The scourge of land mines affects women and children disproportionately, says Loung Ung, 1997 Nobel Peace Prize-winner and national spokesperson for the Vietnam Veterans of America Landmine Campaign.

Ung, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, now a U.S. citizen, spoke November 16 at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. Her talk, "Wars End, Land Mines Don't," was sponsored by the Women's Center as part of the Women Around the World series.

Ung said land mines destroy "in slow motion ... one arm, one leg, one life at a time." They are cheap, easy to plant, and stay in the land for decades.

She said land mines are widespread in 70 countries around the world and that:

  • they are designed not to kill but to maim;

  • every 22 minutes someone is killed or maimed by a landmine;

  • land mines injure 26,000 people a year, 90 percent of them civilians;

  • land mines have killed more people than chemical, biological and nuclear weapons combined;

  • land mines cost $1-$3 each to purchase, but $550-$1,000 each to get out of the ground.

Holding up examples of defused mines in her hands, Ung said most are made of brightly colored plastic and are often mistaken as toys by children. "They might pick it up and throw it against a tree. If they're lucky, it makes a really cool explosion. Or it might take off a hand, an arm, the side of their face, or their life."

In some countries, such as Sierra Leone, Ung said, children and women are used as human de-miners to clear the minefields for male soldiers by being the first to walk across. Land mines are particularly devastating to children, she said, because they are designed to do most damage to the middle of an adult's body; children, being smaller, tend to get hit in the head and heart. If a soldier survives a land mine and has a limb amputated, there is "a lifetime of pain" ahead; for a child, there is "a lifetime of scars," for as the child's body grows, the limb has to be continually re-cut.

Ung's commitment to the anti-land mine movement has deep-rooted personal origins.

She painted an idyllic picture of a privileged early childhood in Cambodia, recalling how she would wrap her arms around trees and try to touch her sisters' fingers, pick flowers, catch butterflies, and spend hours watching black ants in their thousands.

She was reminded of the ants not long afterward, when Khmer Rouge soldiers in 1975 herded Phnom Penh's two million residents out of the city. Her first acquaintance with land mines came in the labor camps, when those who broke the rules were sent to work in a minefield and never returned.

After her father, a former politician, was executed along with other leaders the Khmer Rouge regarded as a potential threat, her mother sent away all seven of her children, urging each to follow a different direction to maximize their chances of survival.

As an orphan in a camp, Ung became "a prime target for brainwashing." She was trained as a child soldier. "When I was eight, instead of a baseball bat, I had a gun," she said.

When the war ended, she and her surviving siblings were still at risk. It was too dangerous, however, to flee by land, because of the mines that infested the border area, so she and her eldest brother escaped by boat - a 60-foot "rocking coffin," packed with 98 people - to a refugee camp in Thailand. From there, they were sponsored by a church to come to this country.

For years she tried to forget her experiences, she said, but on a visit to Cambodia in 1995, she realized that "land mines were making more orphans than the Khmer Rouge did." There are four to six million mines in a country of 10 million people, she said. "You cannot get away from seeing the victims of land mines."

That was the start of her activism.

She now travels around the world, to former war zones that are continuing to suffer the devastation caused by land mines, such as Angola, Mozambique, and El Salvador.

Ung said the anti-land mine movement, which began in 1991 and now has 1,000 agencies worldwide, succeeded in securing a treaty banning the manufacture and use of land mines. The treaty, which became law on March 1, 1999, has now been signed by 136 countries, though not the United States.

Although land mines may seem irrelevant to people here, Ung said, they can affect U.S. citizens too. Friends and family members in the armed forces are at risk, she said.

"And if you want to travel beyond Mexico and Canada, with 70-80 million land mines in 70 countries, how will you know you're not going to step on a mine?" she asked. "It doesn't matter if you're an American tourist, land mines will hurt and kill indiscriminately."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu