Greek minefields spell death for many illegal immigrants

KYPI – Minefields laid when Greece and Turkey once looked close to war today spell death instead for hapless clandestine immigrants trying to get from Asia to Europe. Seven Pakistanis died last month when they somehow stumbled into a death zone after crossing into Greece from Turkey. But the deadly fields are expected to disappear after the two countries last month signed up to the Ottawa Convention on banning land mines, although no date has been set for the beginning of the clearance process. Some 60 would-be migrants have been blown up and killed in minefields on the Greek side of the Evros River since 1995 and as many others injured and mutilated, according to the Greek section of the humanitarian organization Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World). According to official statistics, the figures are 40 dead and 30 injured since 1996. Lieutenant Colonel George Hontrogiorgos says the Greek army cannot be held responsible for the deaths. «Nobody can get in there by mistake,» he said. Speaking beside a field of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines near the Kypi frontier post, the Greek officer pinpointed the warning signs. The minefield, its borders clearly marked, is cordoned off by a 1.60-meter-high (5 foot 4 inch) metal fence. Every 50 centimeters, red fluorescent triangles give a clear warning with the word «mines» in Greek and English. A death’s head reinforces the message. Most mines were placed along the Greek-Turkish border after 1974, when traditional rivals Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, nearly went to war over Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus following an Athens-backed coup on the island. Thousands of would-be immigrants entering Greece and the European Union from the east have crossed the Evros River that forms the border with Turkey. «All the fields in the zone are signposted and checked daily,» said Lt. Col. Hontrogiorgos. «Why should immigrants wander in there when no animals get killed?» Each time a mine goes off accidentally it can take mine clearance and rescue parties hours to bring out the victims, Hontrogiorgos said. «The seven Pakistanis died in broad daylight at 9 a.m.,» he said. «A few hundred meters (yards) further on their passage was clear. Even people in the most desperate straits would never risk their lives like that.» When they cross the Evros, which forms the frontier with Turkey, immigrants are not confronted with a continuous line of minefields, he says. Lt. Col. Hontrogiorgos is a trifle weary of having to explain the minefield situation to non-governmental humanitarian organizations and the press, and cannot understand the cause of these calamities, «damaging to Greece’s image.» The army and police tend toward the view that the culprits responsible for the mine explosions are the professional smugglers who bring the hapless would-be immigrants across the border. They say these traffickers deliberately direct victims into the minefields either as guinea pigs to locate the danger zones, or to punish immigrants who have not paid for their passage. «The injured that we have taken care of say they got into the minefields by mistake, and that’s possible if the smugglers did not warn them of the danger,» said Theophilos Rosenberg, head of Medecins du Monde’s Greek section. «The army is doing its best, but unfortunately, there are still minefields less effectively guarded than Kypi,» he said. Rosenberg said last year he photographed a minefield identified by signs saying «mines» only in Greek, and without any death’s head warning sign. Before Greece signed the Ottawa Convention on land mines in 1997, only three rows of knee-high barbed wire indicated the minefields. «The solution is for Greece to clear the mines,» Rosenberg said. «It’s the only country in the European Union still to have active mines.» He said he could not confirm the existence of Turkish mines on the other side of the border. «I don’t know if they have them,» said Lt. Col. Hontrogiorgos. However, the Greek Foreign Ministry does not doubt their existence. Last month, the Foreign Ministry said Greece and Turkey had signed up to the Ottawa Convention on the banning of land mines. The Greek and Turkish foreign ministers deposited their countries’ ratifications of the treaty with the United Nations on the sidelines of a General Assembly session. The Greek army says mine clearance will take eight to nine months.