Peace Time: Hidden Horrors


November 18, 2021: In northern Israel (Golan Heights) mine clearing efforts recently discovered an underground Syrian ammo bunker dating back to the 1960s, which went undiscovered by Israel after they captured the Golan Heights in 1967. The bunker contained hundreds of explosive items, including mortar shells, fuzes, flares, shotgun shells and various other types of small arm’s ammo. The entrance to the bunker was apparently covered over by the heavy artillery fire the area suffered in the 1967 war and the Syrians never gave the Israelis information on minefields or underground ammo bunkers they left behind. In 1967 it became apparent that there were a lot of explosive surprises hidden beneath the Golan Heights battlefield, which again saw heavy combat in 1973.

Israel began a major operation in 2012 to find and remove the last of these landmines and other undiscovered explosive items. In the last nine years nearly 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) have been scrutinized and cleared of remaining explosive items. This sort of thing is still a major problem in the Middle East, where there are always new conflicts, usually not involving Israel, that leave behind more unexploded munitions. Israeli neighbors Egypt and Jordan still have uncleared areas and the Libyan border with Egypt is another place where mines remain uncleared.

A recent example is Yemen, where a civil war has been going on for seven years. Even before the current conflict began in 2014, abandoned landmines from past conflicts had been a Yemen problem for decades. In early 2018 Saudi Arabia began another major effort to remove landmines and unexploded munitions from Yemen. Since then, over 190,000 mines and unexploded munitions have been removed. There is still a lot of work to do because the Yemen Shia rebels, whose 2014 rebellion triggered another civil war, have planted over half a million landmines since then and retrieved few of them when no longer needed.

The Shia rebels received Iranian technical advice and components to build their own anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. In addition, the rebels have put dozens of Iranian naval mines into the Red Sea to disrupt ship traffic to Saudi ports and the Suez Canal. Mine clearance will go on for years after the fighting stops and there is no end in sight for the fighting because Iran continues to get weapons and advisors through to the Shia rebels.

The outbreak of the Shia rebellion in 2014 put an end to an existing 15-year mine-clearing effort. By the end of that effort in 2014 five of the 21 provinces were declared free of landmines and several more were nearly clear. During the civil wars of the 1990s the landscape was littered with over 500,000 landmines and unexploded munitions. In 1999, a clearing effort was started and by 2014 over 300,000 mines and other explosive items have been found and disposed of. Since 1999, mines and other explosive items have killed nearly 4,000 people. It was obvious that there was still a lot of work to do in 2014 because in 2013 over 700 people had been killed or wounded by mines (mostly) and other explosive items.

Even before the 2014 war broke out, rebel Shia tribesmen in the north were planting new mines to keep security forces and rival tribesmen at bay, while in the south al Qaeda used locally made mines to protect some of its rural hideouts. Since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings overthrew the Yemeni government, the perpetually troublesome Shia tribes up north became more violent, demanding a return of the autonomy they had enjoyed and abused, but lost in the 1960s. Al Qaeda became more active in Yemen after their expulsion from Saudi Arabia in 2004.

All the violence after 2011 disrupted clearing operations, in addition to putting new mines and other nasty stuff into the ground. Even before the current civil war broke out in 2014 it was estimated that it would take another decade of mine clearing effort before all the pre-2014 mines and explosives were found and cleared. Now the estimates are for two or three decades, depending on how much longer the current fighting continues.

This sort of thing was not supposed to happen because landmines were outlawed by the Ottawa Convention, an international treaty that went into force during 1999. There was a flaw in that effort because it mainly applied to nations that didn't have landmines or didn't have any reason to use them. Rebels and gangsters have not signed the international agreement and find the mines a cheap way to control civilian populations and slow down the movements of the security forces. It takes more time, money, and effort to remove these mines than to place them.

The most effective way to get the mine clearing done is by training local volunteers for part-time mine clearing teams. The government must provide training, pay, which should be good by local standards, and health and life insurance. When a new bunch of mines are found, usually by an animal coming across them, the team gets to work.

Despite efforts like this, it has not been a promising time for those seeking to enforce the ban on the use of landmines. Since 2010 Israel, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar (Burma) planted new mines. In addition, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan are still manufacturing landmines. Arms dealers can still provide large quantities of Russian and Chinese landmines, many of them Cold War surplus. China, Russia, and other communist nations were major producers of landmines during the Cold War. The mines were produced not just for use against potential enemies but to aid in keeping the borders closed and prevent their own citizens from fleeing to some less nasty country.

A growing list of outlaw organizations have been ignoring the 1999 landmines ban. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan are manufacturing landmines in primitive workshops and using them against Pakistani troops and Afghans in general, foreign soldiers and anyone who refuses to support the Islamic terrorist group. This curse spread to Yemen in the 1990s. After 2014 landmine casualties in Yemen nearly doubled, to about 1,200 a year. That decreased once the Saudi mine clearing effort began, if only because during the initial stage of the Saudi effort a lot of data was collected on areas known to have mines and unexploded munitions. After 2014 the Saudi-led Arab coalition, which entered Yemen in 2015, added more unexploded munitions, but no mines, to the older ones.

Despite the 1999 treaty, landmines were still causing over 5,000 casualties a year worldwide before 2014 and over 6,000 since then. About 20 percent of the victims are killed and 90 percent of them are males. This is largely because men are more likely to be out in the bush or working farmlands that still contain mines. A third of the casualties are security personnel (police and soldiers). This is because in many countries rebels and criminals are still using landmines, either factory-made ones from countries that did not sign the Ottawa Convention or locally made models.

Landmines are simple to make and workshops are easily set up to do it. There's no shortage of mines out there, even though in the first few years after the 1999 Ottawa Convention over 25 million landmines, in the arsenals of over fifty nations, were destroyed. But most of these nations were not users and rarely sold them either. Those who want landmines find ways to obtain and use them. Yemen Shia rebels are the latest group to demonstrate this. Leftist rebels in Colombia have been making their own mines for years now, as have Islamic and communist rebels in the Philippines. There are believed to be over 100 million mines still in the ground and at least as many in military warehouses for future use.

The 1999 Ottawa Convention was supposed to have reduced landmine casualties among civilians. It hasn't worked because the owners of the largest landmine stockpiles, Russia, and China, refused to sign. Chinese landmines are still available on the international arms black market. China is believed to have the largest stockpile, mostly of anti-personnel mines. The old ones are often sold before they become dangerously unreliable. But even these mines, which go for $5-10 each, are too expensive for many of the criminal organizations that buy them. Land mines, competitive with the factory-built ones from China, can be built for less than three dollars each. You can find all the technical data you need on the Internet.

Anti-vehicle mines are increasingly popular and are particularly common in poor countries where there are still a lot of dirt roads traveled by buses and trucks, carrying dozens of passengers each. While these mines are usually intended for military vehicles, mines can't tell the difference. As a result, in this year or next, Yemen may have the largest number of annual mine casualties in the world.




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