Purging Greece of land mine scourge

By Louisa O’Brien (1)

The Mine Ban Treaty, which was signed in Ottawa in December 1997 by a total of 122 governments, including Greece, came into force on March 1, 1999 - faster than any treaty of its kind. The treaty is the most comprehensive international instrument for ridding the world of the scourge of anti-personnel mines and addressing mine use, production and trade, as well as victim assistance, mine clearance and stockpile destruction. Thus, since 1999, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) has celebrated March 1, the day the treaty came into force, as the most important day in the history of the eradication of anti-personnel land mines (despite a UN resolution of November 2005 making April 4 «International Day for Mine Awareness in Assistance in Mine Action»). In 1999, 40 countries ratified the treaty; there are now 149. Greece signed the Treaty in 1997 and ratified it in September 2003. The treaty then came into operation here in April 2004. Greece had long been de-mining its borders with Bulgaria and the Grammos and Vitsi area and in 2003 started removing anti-personnel mines along the Evros border. It has 10 years to complete removal, according to the treaty. However, accidents continue in the Evros minefields. In 2004, at least 16 people were killed and eight injured, compared to 12 casualties reported in 2003. There were more casualties reported in 2005: two deaths and an injury on April 4, two dead on May 28, another death on June 14 (when a Greek soldier was killed by a land mine during a mine clearance operation), and two more deaths on December 9, 2005. Overall, Greece has been in compliance with most of the treaty, except for a section of Article 6 which states that «[e]ach State Party in a position to do so shall provide assistance for the care and rehabilitation and social and economic reintegration of mine victims...» Mine survivors in Greece do receive primary medical care in hospitals. But nothing else. At a summit in Nairobi in 2004, Deputy Defense Minister Vassilis Michaloliakos commented: «At the national level and until all anti-personnel mines are cleared from our northeastern border, Greece will continue to provide full medical care to wounded illegal immigrants. Moreover, my country looks favorably into the possibility of covering the expenses of prosthetics and relevant training for these innocent and unsuspecting people.» Michaliolakos told ICBL that Greece would also provide survivors with psychological support. In May 2005, he told BBC World that he had acted to obtain resources for prosthetics and psychological support for land mine survivors. Quite apart from the medical problems, there is the constant fear of deportation. «Some of these land mine victims, who try to cross the border, may be fleeing persecution and may be in need of asylum,» said Karen Farkas, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Greece. «Nine asylum seekers who have sustained injuries due to land mines have applied for asylum in the last few years. So far, one land mine victim, Mr Guma (Nhdikumana) from Burundi, has obtained asylum in Greece. If not qualifying as refugees, land mine victims should be offered a subsidiary form of protection while both groups should be provided with care and rehabilitation as well as with social and economic integration.» Twenty-five-year-old Radwan, hospitalized for 11 months after a 2002 mine accident cost him his legs and the use of his right arm, was handed deportation orders in his hospital bed. His response was: «How can I leave? I have no legs.» Guma, 34, lost one leg - when he and his friends were blown up by an anti-personnel mine in 2003. «I heard the bang and thought a farmer must be shooting at us. 'Are you OK?' I called. My friend next to me said, 'I'm going to die.' It was too dark for me to see him,» Guma recalled. «'Come over here,' I told him. 'Hold onto me and pull yourself over here and then if you die, we will die together, don't be afraid.' He just cried. He stopped at about 5 a.m. I called his name but he didn't reply. When dawn broke I turned toward him. I saw something black covering the ground, and then I saw wings beating: Hundreds of birds had landed on my friend's body, and were waiting for me. He was lying on his side. A meter further on was his leg. Like a plastic doll.» Then Guma looked at his own legs. «I whispered a prayer... and put the smashed leg on top of the good one,» he said. «I pulled myself along to the fence some yards away, when I saw two soldiers.» Guma had survived 14 hours on the minefield. Now he has a daily struggle for survival every day in Greece. His prosthetic leg was paid for by a friend. He sleeps on the couch in another friend's house. For the past three years he has worried that he will be deported. After much lobbying on the part of the ICBL in Greece, and with the UNHCR's support, Guma has finally obtained asylum as a refugee. This is a welcome first step toward Greece's fulfillment of Mine Ban Treaty obligations, but a long way from promises given by Deputy Defense Minister Michaliolakos. Guma is the first land mine survivor in Greece to be granted refugee status. Will he also become the first to receive «care, rehabilitation, social and economic reintegration»? (1) Louisa O'Brien, of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, contributed this article to Kathimerini English Edition.