Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 170 | Septiembre 1995



Deactivating Mines: Pacifying Nature

There are still 95,000 mines sown in Nicaragua’s soil, dangerous reminders of the war. Any project, whether economic or social, tourist-oriented or ecological, requires that the mines be removed.

Raquel Fernández

Mined territories are one of the scars of all violent conflicts, whatever their origin and duration. Mines have been used massively since World War II, since a major army task is to block enemy advance on its territory. For better or worse, mines fulfill their objectives during the war, but when peace arrives, the pernicious mines that remain buried are a critical problem and a universal one. In early July the UN held the First World Conference on Mine Deactivation. Nicaragua attended, because more than 95,000 mines are still buried in its land.

The War of the 1980s: A War of Mines

Mines were sown in Nicaraguan soil between 1982 and 1989. According to Nicaraguan Army Lieutenant Colonel Ramón Calderón Vindell, they were used to block the Honduran and Costa Rican borders to try and keep the "contras" from entering Nicaragua. Anti personnel mines were also used to protect economic or social targets: high tension towers, bridges, civil or military communication relays. The constant fear of a massive invasion caused the Sandinista Popular Army also to install anti tank mines in certain border zones where enemy armored vehicles could enter.

The fundamental difference between anti personnel and anti tank mines is the weight necessary to activate the mine. An anti personnel mine explodes with the weight of a person or an animal, while an anti tank mine needs hundreds of pounds. A human being can step on an anti tank mine and nothing will happen. The two types of mines are deactivated differently and incur different risks.

According to Captain Jorge Castro Medina, commander of the Army's Mine Deactivation Platoon, the war in our country from 1982 to 1989 could also be called the "war of mines," at least in some of its chapters. In this war mode, mines are employed offensively as well as defensively. A soldier mines an area during the day, but the enemy learns exactly where the mining is taking place, and quickly mines the area between it and the camp of those doing the mining, sometimes even using the same mines as the soldier. Hence, when the soldier trods confidently back along what he considers secure territory, he discovers too late that the minefield changed position.

In this kind of war a minefield would typically be the land surrounding an electrical tower, but the Sandinista often put anti personnel mines just under the surface of the tower's concrete base, an area an enemy sabotage expert would consider safe. Such a mine would not affect the tower structure, but would be enough to blow off an enemy's leg.

Such a war of tricks and counter tricks, of predicting enemy behavior in order to abort it, transforms Nature; from a fertile friend it becomes an unexpected enemy for people and animals. The whole environment is endangered when mines are planted in the earth.

Designed to Injure

Planting mines is not the same as removing them. While there is always some danger in handling mines, one is at least normally still walking on friendly terrain. But deactivating mines, by definition, is done on hostile terrain and an error can be fatal.

Detonating an anti personnel mine almost always leaves one disabled. With their explosive charge of less than half a pound, these mines rarely produce instantaneous death, but they can cause a slow painful death to a solitary walker or wild animal.

The military objective is never death, but injury. Modern war seeks to produce the highest possible number of injuries in the front lines, and economic, human and moral deterioration in the rearguard at the lowest possible cost. To achieve this, human intelligence has ingeniously developed a tiny mine, about the size of a pack of cigarettes and weighing about a pound, that generally blows off a leg but does not kill. A soldier without a leg is in no condition to keep fighting. Or walking. Two other soldiers, at least, must carry him to where he can get first aid. Also, the whole group's combat spirit is affected by hearing the cries of the wounded. Once the disabled soldier is out of danger, huge resources must be invested in rehabilitation and prosthesis, taking them away from use on other war objectives. And, finally, such an injury is permanent. Older mines, which literally pulverized the unfortunate soul who stepped on them, were in some ways more "human." They killed without suffering and caused less devastation to the living.

They Changed Place over the Years

Although a war of mines is cruel and its scars remain for many years after the signing of peace, Nicaragua has, to a certain degree, some advantages since its own army planted the majority of the mines. In principle, every one was carefully registered and the mined terrain was surrounded by wire fences.

But during the hostilities and because war is war both sides relocated mines without advising anyone or registering them. Landslides and floods produced by heavy rains also helped alter the maps of mined territories. This problem is intensified with mines planted to protect bridges; floods have loosened many of them, carrying them several kilometers downriver. Peasants later used the wire installed to identify the minefields for their own fences and the warning signs are illegible, rusted or destroyed. Today, the mine sapper faces a totally unknown reality, unable to rely on the available maps and data.

Other factors complicate the work even more. It has been six years since Nicaragua planted its last mine, and seven years more since it planted the first. Over all those years, the mines have been exposed to tropical sun, torrential rains, movements of the currents. All of this has changed not only the mines' location, but also their characteristics. Anti tank mines, designed to explode under pressure of more than 220 lbs, can now be set off by the step of a child. An anti personnel mine, which should detonate when someone steps on it, may remain unexploded for years in well traveled zones, until one unlucky day it blows off someone's leg. The mines' behavior is no longer predictable, but they must be removed.

Over 8,000 Have Been Eliminated

After peace was officially declared in Nicaragua, mine deactivation became an issue of debate and a subject of demands. Civilians, the military and international organizations asked over and over for mine deactivation. Civilians needed it because the mines were on their farms or access roads. The military said it was willing and able to deactivate the mines if it had the necessary resources. Many international organizations demanded it as a condition of initiating or continuing technical or humanitarian economic collaboration. No responsible institution would finance a project on a minefield or send its officials there. Deactivation is indispensable to attracting investment, economic projects or support of any kind to the country.

Indispensable, but very costly. It would be very hard for Nicaragua to carry out the project with its own resources. Despite all this, a National Deactivation Plan began to be developed in 1992 with the cooperation and advice of the OAS, the UN and the Interamerican Defense Council. Work began in June 1993 and went through November, when it had to be suspended for lack of funds. Sixty areas totaling 27,649 square meters were deactivated in that period, extracting 2,375 mines. It had been decided to begin in small dispersed areas that had been hindering economic activity in much larger areas. The work began in Ayapal and Bocay, in Jinotega.

According to army estimates, ten casualties could be expected a year during the deactivation process. But the six months of that first stage already produced the annual quota: two deaths and eight wounded, the majority with permanent injuries. "Inexperience," explains Lieutenant Colonel Calderón Vindell. "They were very difficult months and troop morale dropped severely at some moments, but we learned from our errors. We adapted world deactivating techniques to Nicaragua's characteristics and since then have had no more casualties. This has strengthened the morale of the sappers," he finished with a smile. To have a year and a half of daily mine deactivation pass with no casualties is a great victory.

The work has not stopped. With its own resources, the army cleared 68 more areas in 1994, covering 35,193 square meters and extracting 4,139 mines. Through July 22 of this year, another 15 areas 19,875 square meters have been cleaned and 2,205 mines found. According to army records, 95,405 mines are still distributed in 720 areas, a total of 181,200 square meters.

Costly Lessons

The sappers learned two important experiences during their first deactivation campaign. The first was that when dealing with mines, shoot first and ask questions later, as it were. In the first days they did the reverse; before proceeding, they took all possible measures to assure that what the detector sensed really was a mine.

Many pieces of metal are buried throughout Nicaragua's countryside, especially in old military confrontation sites. Horseshoes, shrapnel fragments, lost bullets and pieces of barbed wire all set off the detector. Frequently, the detector reacts more strongly to an inoffensive nail than to a mine, since mines are made with plastic materials, precisely to avoid detection. Germán Centeno, one of the army's two fatal casualties, captured two metallic signals on his detector; one strong and the other weak. Using his logic, he thought the strong one was a mine and the weak one some metal fragment fallen among the vegetation. His logic was wrong. Since that error, anything that sets off the detector is considered a mine and explosives are put there to see if it explodes or not. "Better to use more explosives than to lose a human life," explained Calderón Vindell.

The second lesson learned was to not rush with mines. The sappers initially competed with each other to see who could deactivate more mines in less time, but events demonstrated that slow is better when playing with death.

Nicaraguan reality also had to be adapted to international techniques. According to a US deactivation specialist who has participated in many deactivation processes over the last 30 years, the countries where mine deactivation is hardest are Cambodia, because of its luxuriant vegetation, and Afghanistan, because of its uneven terrain. This same specialist acknowledged that Nicaragua has both characteristics.

International techniques recommend opening a narrow security path from which one can advance sideways in both directions. This was done in Nicaragua until the Deactivation Platoon's first fatal accident that of Captain Jerónimo Rivas. Rivas, who wanted to personally supervise the work, was walking carefully along the correctly identified security path, but it had rained, and his foot slipped.

Since then, the terrain is designated before beginning work, and a broad security margin is left. Sappers move slowly along the edge, raking every millimeter until there is an absolute guarantee that the terrain is deactivated. The danger must always be ahead and rearguard territory must always be safe.

Medical Chain on Red Alert

Mine deactivation is one of the army's most costly activities, partly because the Deactivation Platoon cannot work alone. It needs infantry support to keep curious people at a distance. Before starting work, neighbors must also be interviewed to get more details about the location of the mined terrain to supplement and update the maps made by the soldiers who planted the mines sometimes the same ones who take them out.

The sappers also must be trained in first aid and an emergency medical chain, running from the mine fields to the Military Hospital in Managua, is on constant red alert. Transport must be available, whether by ambulance or helicopter.

Every branch and shrub must be cut very carefully. One never knows where there will be a mine nor when it will detonate. The sappers must advance at a snail's pace, guaranteeing each step before taking another one. "The mines were planted with sneaky ideas," says Captain Alejandro Rostrán, another sapper unit leader. "If we're going over flat terrain that has a craggy wall nearby, the flat land may or may not be mined, but the wall surely is. And getting mines out of them is serious business."
The deactivated terrain ends up totally bald. No weed that could hide a mine can remain. Mines themselves are designed to explode in the air, seeking out the human body, and do not leave deep holes. The damage to nature is small and in Nicaragua the land recovers in a few weeks. But a crater some 20 cm. in diameter and 10 cm. deep remains where a mine has been detonated.

Danger, Tension, Responsibility

The Nicaraguan Army's Sapper Unit is made up of 175 men organized in 5 platoons. They run constant risks cleaning death out of the national territory, but receive salaries from 800 to 1,200 córdobas (no more than US$160) monthly. They are highly qualified specialists, professionals in resurrecting the land, but their salaries are a pittance.

The work is difficult. The sapper carrying the detector is protected by a heavy suit like an astronaut's, weighing over 40 lbs. He wears goggles and a long sleeve jacket to protect his hands. Pants and cushioned shoes reinforced with metal cover him totally. In this hot, heavy outfit, the sapper advances slowly with his metal detector, guaranteeing each step, noting safe territory. When he finds a metallic object, he notes it. Everyone then leaves the area and another sapper specialized in placing explosives detonates it. Sometimes other mines nearby go off at the same time. Then the sapper begins again.

The work is so hard and wearing that the same man can only do it for 15 minutes. Then he needs a half hour rest, at least, until he has recovered. All possible negative circumstances come together in the sapper's work: imminent danger, heavy equipment, the elements of heat, cold and rain, and being far away from towns that allow some sort of distraction. The sappers' camp must be close to the work zone and as comfortable as possible to guarantee a night's sleep. But since all sappers camp there, the topic of conversation is always the same: the mines. They can't have a drink at night to relieve the day's tensions, because early in the morning they must have a firm pulse and an attentive ear to sense the signs of a possible mine. Their own lives and the security of many other people depend on them.

Anonymous Superheroes

Alejandro Rodríguez Neira is from Ocotal. He joined the army in 1982, continuing his earlier clandestine collaboration with the FSLN. Although he now has grey hairs, Alejandro continues his work as a sapper. He knows his work is necessary and is proud to do it. Jadder Gerardo Aráuz, 25 years old, from Malpaisillo, joined the army just for this task; while proud of his work, he has not told his wife and three year old son exactly what he does in the army. He has had pictures of himself taken with his platoon to show his son when he grows up. "I'll tell him all about it when it's over," he says. "Right now I don't want to worry anyone."
Carlos Santiago López Vázquez's family does know what he does. His wife and five children, from seven months to eight years, fear for his life every day, but there is no work in Somotillo so he had to grab this opportunity. Relatives of Carlos were killed by mines so he feels responsible for helping eradicate them.

Everyone remembers their co workers' accidents with great sadness. "Jerónimo Rivas was killed just when we were starting to work," remembers Carlos Santiago. "It was the first accident and affected an officer. We had to spend a week resting, because we were all nervous, in no shape to work. Then when we went back to work, we immediately had another casualty. That one took two weeks to get over. Even though it wasn't fatal, it demoralized us."
Captain Castro explains that a sapper is not allowed to work every day. If he is not completely fit, he is sent to the camp until he improves. He can't even work with a slight cold; a sneeze at the wrong moment could be his last.

Every sapper has a different opinion about his task, but all agree on one thing: no one wants his children to take up the same profession. It is said that sappers commit two errors in their lives. The first, deciding to be a sapper and the second, the definitive one. After that one, they can't make any more. But there have been no casualties for a year and a half, which has renewed the energy and morale of these anonymous superheroes who risk their lives daily with the same attitude with which others travel to their air conditioned offices.

Other Ways to Deactivate Mines

Sappers do not always directly enter the mine fields. Sometimes the work is done differently. In northern Chinandega, anti tank mines had to be cleared from an extensive border area the government was going to use to fill its commitment to give land to ex combatants from the army and the Resistance. In that case a tank was used to push a five ton roller over the area. These rollers are used in military situations to open the way for troops in mined territory. Every time a mine explodes, the roller jumps several yards in the air so after four or five mines the roller has to be changed. Several were destroyed in this task.

At times civilians accidentally pull out mines without detonating them while plowing their plots of land. Since they don't know what to do with them, they often just pile them up anywhere. Captains Rostrán and Castro almost had a collective heart attack when, during a courtesy visit to a National Police office in the north, they found it full of undetonated mines that peasants had taken there, assuming the military would know what to do with them. But since they didn't, they were using them as paperweights or to balance desk legs. "If a mine had exploded, the others would have also exploded from the vibration and half the town would have gone," commented Castro.

Enough Mines to Carpet the Planet

Nicaragua attended the UN Conference in Geneva to request aid to finish its mine deactivation program, knowing there are countries in much worse shape. Angola has some 12 million mines spread over its 1.25 million square kilometers. If Nicaragua's mine density were similar, it would mean 1.5 million mines on our soil. Cambodia is worse than Angola; it also has 12 million mines, but on only 181,000 square kilometers. Some zones of that country are literally carpeted with mines, and the rural population must move very carefully along narrow safe paths.

The problem is different in each conflict. The Gulf War left thousands of mines in desert territories that were discovered and detonated with relative ease. But the Russian war against Chechenia has left thousands of mines that will not be easy to find. In the former Yugoslavia, the mines are also counted by the thousands and they are still being planted. And not all those planted in Europe during World War II have yet been cleaned out; there is still occasionally news of accidents caused by bombs and mines buried in European soil over 50 years ago.

"They do it with a conscience," comments Captain Rostrán with black humor. "They get polished. A mine can change its characteristics over the years and explode unexpectedly, but what is sure is that it will explode. More or less violently than expected, with more or less pressure than indicated on the instructions, but it will explode." The most recent design has a caducity date that allows the user to use it according to strategic and tactical needs. But conventional mines remain active until they explode. Whenever. Nothing affects that.

According to experts in military affairs, there are sufficient mines in world arsenals to carpet the entire planet's surface. And they continue to be produced, even though many organizations and institutions are calling for an international moratorium.

General Consensus: Get them Out

"The mines are a terrible scar of war, which weaken the country's security and violate the human right of security. People are permanently exposed to danger," points out Evelyn Palma, director of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center's Legal Department. "The authorities must totally support mine deactivation and facilitate all the necessary means to carry out the process." She stressed that the government is responsible for carrying out the mine deactivation to facilitate a reasonably secure life for rural producers, who are citizens with full rights. Palma also notes the right to work in peace and security and the right of all to a safe environment. Mine deactivation is a form of decontamination.

Byron Corrales, a board member of the Union of Farmers and Cattle Ranchers (UNAG) who is in charge of the "Campesino to Campesino" training program, says his organization has been demanding mine deactivation since 1990. "Many peasants have their small farms full of mine fields, so they are now in the cities," he explains. "They would gladly return to their plots if they were sure it would not mean death or disability. Mine deactivation could also resolve some of the land demands."
Some of these peasants have returned to their lands even at the risk of dying, and the number of disabled has grown. "Why do they take the risk?" "Because land is very special for peasants," says Corrales. "There's a special relationship. After their mother, it's the land."
Nasser Gutiérrez is also an UNAG member, responsible for attending demobilized army and Resistence members. His is a common history; while he was fulfilling his military service, he was kidnapped by the contras and had no choice but to join them in order to survive. As he got to know them, however, he saw that they also aspired to social justice and that many of them had been victims of injustices. So he followed them with his heart.

"It's a rare feeling," says Nasser when he talks about the mined productive lands. "It's a huge deception. Land gives life, sustaining me and my family, yet suddenly this ally becomes an enemy. It's very hard to explain."
Edgardo García, General Secretary of the Farmworkers' Association (ATC), says, "The owner of the land is not always the one who works it. But the field worker, the rural proletarian, does work it and runs the risk. We receive constant information about casualties among our affiliates as a consequence of mines. The ATC is perhaps the organization most interested in total and definitive mine deactivation."

The Price of Mine Deactivation

Lt. Colonel Calderón Vindell estimates that US$6 million are needed to deactivate all the country's mines. With that, Nicaragua could be totally free of mines in two or three years. Some myopically consider this too much money to pacify nature. But it is a strategic cost, given that any future project is affected by the mines. The announced Dry Canal, whether reality or fantasy, would have to cross territories that are currently mined. The country's development requires the multiplication of electrical energy production, which means infrastructure works in areas that have still not been totally cleared of mines. Ecotourism will not be possible as long as ecotourists risk returning to their country with one less leg. Mine deactivation is evidently expensive, but the costs of not carrying out the deactivation are even higher.

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