Credit: Medill National Security Reporting Project

Editor's note: DEADLY DEBRIS is a three-month investigation by a team of students at Northwestern University's Medill Graduate School of Journalism that examines the deadly legacy of the United States' use of landmines and cluster bombs around the world and its $3.2 billion effort to clean them up. Medill students reported the series from Cambodia, Iraq, Ukraine and Mozambique.

WASHINGTON — For more than a century, the United States has used landmines, cluster munitions and other highly explosive ordnance during conflicts around the world, and sold or given these deadly weapons to dozens of other nations so they can use them. 

Long after those conflicts ended, the deadly debris from these so-called explosive remnants of war continues to kill and maim countless thousands of people. The damage they cause to whole communities and regions by barring access to fields, roads and commercial centers is incalculable. They have crippled the economies of developing nations, especially those trying to mount post-war reconstruction efforts.

No one knows for sure how many active landmines and cluster munitions are thought to be scattered throughout the world, but experts’ estimates run as high as 100 million of them in 68 countries. Tens of millions of others remain stockpiled around the world, waiting to be planted or dropped.

Since 1993, the US has spent more than $2.3 billion on programs to clean up all of this unexploded ordnance, to assist victims and to eliminate aging stockpiles of these munitions. The US has aided in the complete cleanup of 15 countries, with more than 90 countries receiving some form of demining assistance from Washington.

That makes the US government, by far, the world leader in efforts to rid the world of these “hidden killers,” as the State Department described them in a landmark 1994 study.

Since then, there has been a sharp reported decline in landmine casualties.

Earlier this month, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) released its annual report on the 17th anniversary of the Mine Ban Treaty, which has now been signed by 162 nations.

The ICBL said landmine casualties, “perhaps the most brutal and indiscriminate residuals of wars past,” had fallen 25 percent from the previous year, to 3,308 victims. As in previous years, the vast majority were civilians, at 79 percent. Nearly half were children.

That made it the lowest number of recorded injuries and deaths by buried explosives since a global disarmament group began tracking these numbers in 1999. Back in 1994, more than 26,000 people were killed or injured.

Megan Burke, casualties and victim assistance editor of ICBL’s Landmine Monitor, said the lowered casualty rate is “possibly the best measure of how successful the Mine Ban Treaty has been.”

“But we can’t forget that there are hundreds of thousands of landmine survivors waiting for their needs to be met and their rights to be fulfilled,” Burke added in a release distributed by the group.

Despite this unmet need, international funding for mine clearance, survey and risk education, collectively known as mine action, sharply declined, ICBL reported. It totaled $647 million in 2013, down from $681 million in 2012.

Critics, including officials from some other countries, say that even the higher level of funding isn’t enough, and the Obama administration should do more.

Thin strips of tape strung between red and white posts are all that delineate safe pathways from contaminated land in Mozambique.

Some contend that the US efforts, although welcome, comprise just a small fraction of how much time, effort and money actually will be required to allow civilians “To Walk the Earth in Safety,” which is the motto of the US State Department’s humanitarian mine action program.

That is especially the case, they say, given how much of the death and destruction has been caused by the United States in the first place by ordnance it deployed during the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars and other military actions.

In Cambodia, civilians are still dying as a result of the hundreds of tons of cluster bombs dropped there during the US “secret war” in that country and Laos, which accompanied the fighting in neighboring Vietnam. At least 65,000 people have been killed by this ordnance and from landmines planted during other wars there.

J. Lao Veng, a Cambodian official, says his government wants to take responsibility for clearing its land and providing medical care for survivors. But he says the cost is astronomically expensive, and that US funding has dropped to almost zero.

“I think that it is true that it’s [the] Cambodian government’s responsibility,” he says. “But the one who caused it should be part of the fix to help the victims. This means that, this is the US’ obligation as well, to reconsider and give support to them.”

A global crisis, a tepid response

The Obama administration — like each US administration before it — has had some overall successes, but a spotty record, at best, of paying for cleanup of areas in which the US military inflicted damage. 

In fact, the US government ensures that those cleanup efforts are to be coordinated by civilians in the State Department, and not linked formally to what kinds of ordnance the US military drops or where, or what kind of impact it has on civilian populations.

That’s been the case in Iraq, where the US has fought two major wars over the past 24 years.

The Gulf War, in 1991, was the last time the US military planted landmines in large numbers, and it mostly cleaned them up afterwards. But the more recent war in Iraq, and the one in Afghanistan, were the last times the US military dropped cluster bombs in large numbers. And many of them remain, and are exacting a horrific human toll.

From 2001 through 2002, the US dropped 1,228 cluster bombs containing 248,056 submunitions in Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service, the independent research arm of Congress.

US and British forces used almost 13,000 cluster munitions containing an estimated 1.8 million to 2 million sub-munitions during just the first three weeks of combat in Iraq in 2003, the CRS reported in 2008.

Rusted munitions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The US stopped using the cluster bombs in Iraq in 2003. But the CRS investigators raised questions about why one particular — and popular — cluster munition had been used there after causing so many problems during the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan.

“It is widely believed that confusion over US cluster submunitions (BLU-97/B) that were the same color and size as air-dropped humanitarian food packets played a major role in the US decision to suspend cluster munitions use in Afghanistan,” CRS noted, adding, “but not before using them in Iraq.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to reserve the right to use some cluster munitions itself. And it has approved the manufacture and sale or transfer of certain cluster munitions to allies, even though some, like Israel, have used them in controversial strikes on civilian populations.

In 2013, the US Department of Defense authorized $641 million worth of the controversial weapons to be sent to key ally Saudi Arabia, which has reportedly used them against militants in Yemen.

Critics say such actions by the US are undermining its own efforts to eliminate such weapons. They also criticize the Obama administration for refusing to sign two separate international treaties that aim to eliminate the manufacture, use and stockpiling of landmines and cluster munitions.

In response to mounting pressure, the White House announced last September, with great fanfare, that it was taking some major steps toward signing the landmine treaty. That includes a vow to destroy the massive US stockpiles of mines everywhere except the Korean peninsula, where the Pentagon says they are needed to prevent a North Korean incursion into South Korea.

“The White House has recognized what our NATO allies declared long ago: These inherently indiscriminate weapons that disproportionately harm civilians have no place in the 21st Century, and those who use them should be condemned,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of the most vocal critics of US landmine and cluster munition policy.

But Leahy and others say more needs to be done. Leahy noted in his September statement that the new White House policy mirrored legislation that he had introduced way back in 1997, which had been cosponsored by 57 US senators, “including key Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate today.”

A grim and continuing legacy 

By design, most landmines — and cluster munitions — do not discriminate in terms of who they kill or injure. Most victims don’t even know what hit them.

One minute they’re plowing a field or walking along a path, or picking up what they think is a scrap of valuable metal. Then they wake up in a hospital with missing limbs and other wounds that not only scar them for life, but, often, make it impossible to earn a living, or care for their children. Annual medical costs are usually many times what they earn for a living in a year, and they last a lifetime.

Florencia Manhiça of Mozambique, profiled in this project, is one of those victims. At 16, she stepped on a mine while gathering firewood last February, on a hillside that had been certified as safe by at least one mine clearance crew.

Tep Vy is another. The fisherman and father of three lost his leg in 1993 while walking along his favorite foot path in Cambodia, near the border with Thailand.

“I walked on that road every day,” he said one recent day while undergoing rehab. “That day I wasn’t careful, and stepped on the wrong side of the road. That’s when the mine exploded.”

“I feel such regret about that leg,” he adds. “Now I could not work properly. It’s really difficult.”

Tep Vy lost his leg to a landmine in rural Cambodia.

WATCH: Tep Vy tells his story

Omer Hassan of Kurdistan is a third. When he was 21, he volunteered for a mine clearance team in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war in 1991. He didn’t see the piece of ordnance even though he’d gone through special training.

“I lost part of my body, lost all my hope, my dreams, everything,” he says. He soon went back to mine clearance though, and has spent the 24 years doing it. It’s not just to pay the bills, he says, but to help others escape a similar fate.

“I show myself as an example,” he says. “I tell them, ‘If you do a mistake, you gonna lose a leg, or your life, or your hands, your eyes.’”

Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled the latest To Walk the Earth in Safety report, which besides being the motto is also the US government’s annual chronicle of its efforts to rid the world of landmines and cluster munitions.

Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, says the issue is a personal one for him. In his travels, he said, he has watched legless small children forced to use little wagons to maneuver the streets of Southeast Asia. He has watched men and women in Africa balancing food baskets while using makeshift crutches to navigate crowded streets. And he has talked to Colombian soldiers and police who were wounded by mines during decades of conflict there.

“Their stories are heartbreaking. In less than a second, their lives were changed forever,” Kerry said. “Different countries, different stories, different times — but none of these victims was the enemy of anybody.”

Kerry said that much progress has been made, especially thanks to US efforts at the forefront of the global humanitarian effort to clear explosive remnants of war. But he also noted that unexploded ordnance continues to endanger civilians in more than 60 countries.

“Decades after soldiers have laid down their weapons and leaders have made peace,” Kerry said, “these grim legacies of war kill and maim local populations.” 

Decades of promises, some forgotten 

Exactly 20 years ago, Kerry’s predecessor made a similarly grim assessment.

That year, the State Department released a landmark report titled, "Hidden Killers 1994: The Global Landmine Crisis," which detailed the problem — and the steps that Washington said were needed to counter it.

“Despite the efforts of the United States and others, the global antipersonnel landmine problem is getting worse,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a preface to the report. “The simple fact is that more landmines are deployed in armed conflict every year than are removed by mine clearance personnel.”

That same year, in a Sept. 26, 1994, address to the United Nations, President Bill Clinton called for the eventual elimination of antipersonnel landmines. As a first step, he proposed an international framework to regulate their production, export and stockpiling.

By then, the world was littered with an estimated 80-110 million landmines in 64 countries — just four nations less than the tally cited by Kerry.

“The burden imposed by the proliferation and indiscriminate use of these weapons is beyond calculation,” Christopher said. “The world must take stronger steps to address this problem, and the United States will remain at the forefront of that effort.”

Anti-personnel mines are “devastating weapons of war, but they are equally devastating weapons after a war,” the report said. “The vast majority of landmines stockpiled and in use today around the world have no means of self-neutralization or self-destruction.”

The mines remained active and deadly long after conflicts cease, killing and maiming an estimated 26,000 people, mostly innocent civilians, according to the report.

The United Nations said in 1994 that ongoing clearance efforts had managed to extract 80,000 mines worldwide the year before. But another estimated 2.5 million mines were implanted.”

The report warned: “To quote UN demining expert, Brigadier General (Ret.) Patrick Blagden, 'we're losing the battle.'"

Each mine is capable of wounding or killing several people, and efforts to destroy them are slow, painstaking, and often run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars each.

“But the human costs of not destroying them are proving even more expensive,” the landmark study said. “Thousands of lives are lost to explosions; entire regions are denied basic services because repairs to infrastructure are impeded; humanitarian aid shipments are disrupted; and societies are thrown into chaos.”

Alarmed by such statistics, the US took several immediate steps to address the problem, including declaring a moratorium on the export of antipersonnel landmines. It also established the Demining Assistance Program to provide mine awareness training and mine clearance training to nations with landmine problems and also initiated research and development into cost-effective demining techniques.

Clinton went further in 1998, pledging to sign by 2006 the Ottawa Convention, the treaty banning anti-personnel landmines, if the US was able to find effective alternatives to such weapons.

Soon after taking office in 2001, however, President George W. Bush initiated a review of US landmine policy, and three years later vowed to never sign the treaty. Bush did sign into law a Leahy bill that year, which banned the export of landmines for one year.

But it wasn’t nearly enough, according to Leahy and other critics.

“It is unfortunate, but no surprise,” Leahy said in a response. He also criticized the Defense Department, saying, “Ten years ago the Pentagon pledged to aggressively develop alternatives to landmines, but that turned out to be an empty promise.”

When he took office, Obama announced a major review of US landmine policy too, but it was shrouded in secrecy — and never disclosed its findings. By then, the United States was one of just a handful of countries that hadn’t joined the treaty and the international ban on mines.

By this past April, Leahy was frustrated — and furious, aides said in recent interviews.

“It is inexcusable that 20 years after President Clinton challenged the world to eliminate antipersonnel landmines, and 18 years after he announced a US plan to develop alternatives to mines, we are still waiting,” Leahy said in a Capitol Hill speech.

“Ask yourselves this: If landmines were littering this country — in schoolyards, along roads, in cornfields, in our national parks — and scores of children were being horribly maimed … how long do you think it would it take before the White House joined the Mine Ban Treaty? Two days? Two weeks? I doubt it would be longer.”

Dressed for clearance work in Kurdistan.

Leahy attributed the delays to “bureaucratic inertia and a lack of leadership.”

Five months later, Obama announced that the US would make some reforms aimed at eventual accession to the landmine treaty. It no longer uses mines outside of the unique circumstances of the Korean Peninsula, where they’re used in a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. He also committed the US to destroying US landmine stockpiles not required for that conflict.

Critics say that the US needs to find a way to join the treaty, not just comply with selective provisions of it.

When ICBL released its annual report earlier this month, the group credited the “sobering yet dwindling” numbers to growing compliance with the Mine Ban Treaty.

Jeff Abramson, a program manager at ICBL’s research unit, the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, noted that many problems remain.

ICBL reported that more than 1,500 de-miners have been killed or injured during clearance operations since 1999. They’re also at risk of being attacked or abducted, especially on conflict zones like Afghanistan, Mozambique and Somalia where non-state armed groups operate.

The report also said these high-security-risk countries are also where the most landmine casualties occur. There were 1,050 casualties in Afghanistan, nearly half of them children, followed by Colombia with 368, Pakistan with 219, Syria with 201 and Iraq with 124.

And Abramson said one key problem may never be solved: No one knows how many active land mines remain underground, or where they are hidden, according to Abramson. He said the ICBL gave up tracking those numbers long ago.

Instead, mine clearance best practices focus on determining where the contamination actually exists, “so that we can focus our efforts there rather than clearing land that’s believed to be contaminated but actually isn’t.”

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