Music over minefields Benefit: Concert will raise money -- and consciences -- to remove land mines from world's battlefields.

October 08, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Like most Americans, Emmylou Harris used to think of land mines -- if indeed she thought of them at all -- as a fairly abstract problem.

She knew they had been used by armies all around the world for much of the last 60 years, and she was dimly aware there were still places in the world where people couldn't walk because of the mines still in the ground. But she wasn't fully aware of how bad it could be until last fall, when she accompanied Billy Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans America Foundation (VVAF), on a trip to Vietnam.

Traveling around the country, she says, it was impossible not to be aware of the land mine problem, because "you see the unexploded ordnance. If there's heavy rains, they just wash up or roll down the road. A place where it might have been safe the day before, all of a sudden [isn't].

"It was a pretty eye-opening experience."

Nor is the situation unique to Vietnam. According to recent U.S. State Department estimates, there are 60 million to 100 million land mines still lurking beneath the surface of former battlefields around the world. "The war ends -- but the war continues," says Harris. "And the war will continue until every land mine is out of the ground."

So she decided to help Muller try to solve the problem of land mines and set plans in motion that ultimately resulted in the benefit concert that will take place tomorrow at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington. Joining Harris on the bill are Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Buddy and Julie Miller.

Proceeds will help the VVAF pay for humanitarian campaigns to provide land-mine victims in Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola and El Salvador with prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs and rehabilitation facilities.

At first, Harris' idea was simply to try to raise the consciousness of some of her fellow musicians. "I had a little gathering at my house," she says. Harris had invited two people from VVAF, Gail Griffith -- an old friend from Harris' days on the D.C. scene in the '70s -- and Muller, as well as a host of Nashville musicians.

"All the musicians that I talked to were very, very responsive," she says. "They wanted to know more, they told me that anything that they could do, they would do."

But Harris got her biggest boost when she was working with Willie Nelson on his new album, "Teatro." Nelson, says Harris, could easily relate to the land mine issue because of his long involvement with Farm Aid. "Most of these countries are agrarian countries," she says. "They're poor countries where people depend on farming and working the land, and they can't, because they might get their legs blown off."

Nelson, she says, "threw his hat in the ring right away. In fact, he's the one who suggested that what we do should be a concert in Washington."

It was through Nelson that Sheryl Crow got involved. "Sheryl happened to be in New York, and we all ended up gathering at this little club, where we were going to see one of the musicians in Willie's band," says Harris. "I introduced her to Bobby [Muller], and she was immediately taken also by Bobby's total commitment."

Under Muller's leadership, the VVAF has moved to the forefront of the fight to ban land mines. Not only did the group co-found the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, but it is also financing a global mine survey to locate and measure density of land mines in former battlefields around the world.

Finding unexploded mines isn't easy. Although scientists are working to develop high-tech methods for finding mines, the two most effective means available at the moment are metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

It's laborious, time-consuming work, but it desperately needs to be done. "The terrible thing about these weapons is that they kill most children, because of the force of the explosion," says Harris. "It's dangerous enough when you send your kid out, like when they learn to drive. It's dangerous enough for them out there on the road in a benign situation.

"But the idea of sending a child down the street to play with a neighbor and they might get blown up "

Beyond finding and removing existing land mines, the VVAF is also working to stop the manufacture and use of land mines worldwide. So far, 130 countries have signed the Ottawa Treaty banning land mines, and the agreement is set to come into force March 1.

The United States has not signed the agreement. A 1992 moratorium on the use of land mines was passed by Congress, but with a provision allowing the president to authorize the use of land mines for national security.

A recent Presidential Directive Decision has called for research into alternatives to land mines, and the 1999 Defense Appropriations bill has authorized $52 million for de-mining efforts. Under the most recent legislation, if the United States is satisfied with the alternatives, it would sign the Ottawa Treaty in 2006.

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