Maimed by land mine, victim crusades for ban

Survivor: At the Cambodian amputee's despair, the realization that he could help others changed his life

January 30, 2000|By TUN CHANNARETH

YOU experience a fear you will never forget when you are aware that the ground on which you walk is mined. In 1981, at tlle height of the Cambodian civil war, I felt that fear the day I lost my legs to an antipersonnel land mine. In one instant, I was no longer simply a soldier, an expectant father, or a husband. I became a land mine survivor.

I wanted to die. There, in the jungle, I wanted my friend to kill me. With an ax, I cut the dead weight of one of my shattered legs from my torso so I was light enough to be lifted. Through the rest of the minefield, across 30 kilometers, my friend carried me to the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp where they amputated what was left of my legs. Looking at my body after the surgery, I thought of whether I would be able to support my pregnant wife. I thought of whether I could participate in the life of my village.

The four months I spent in rehabilitation were a hopeless and difficult time. All I wanted to do was to see my family at Site Two refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, and once having seen them, to die. After returning to Site Two, the sadness and despair of those months turned to hope and a sense of responsibility, when my first daughter was born. Realizing that other amputees were struggling, like me, to be active and needed, I learned to make wheelchairs. Soon thereafter, my family began to blossom, growing from one child to six.

In Cambodia, a nation where one of every 236 people is an amputee because of land mines or other trauma, wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs give land mine survivors utility and independence. With the help of a wheelchair, I accompany my children when they walk to school, help my wife carry water and earn income for my family, activities I once thougilt impossible for me to accomplish as an amputee.

The international community, especially the United States, has done a great deal to assist land-mine survivors in reclaiming their lives and maximizing their potential. However, wheelchairs are not enough. What Cambodia and scores of developing nations blighted by land mines need is a mine-free world. And they need it now. Antipersonnel land mines are indiscriminate weapons that cannot judge the difference between the weight of a soldier's boot and a child's sandal. Every 22 minutes, someone, somewhere in the world, is maimed or kiIIed by stepping on a land mine.

I do not want my child, or anyone else's child for that matter, to lose legs or life to this weapon. To that end, I joined the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1993. The work of the ICBL, after four years of international awareness raising and campaigning, led to the signing of the Ottawa Treaty in 1997, banning production, stockpiling, transfer and use of all antipersonnel land mines.

For our efforts, Jody Williams, the coordinator of the ICBL, and the founding members of the ICBL were awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace, which, on the ICBL's behalf, I accepted in Oslo, Norway. The Mine Ban Treaty, signed by more than 137 nations, has been ratified by 90 countries, many of which have destroyed their land-mine stockpiles.

When my children go outside to play, I often think how long would the United States refusal to sign continue if one day a land mine exploded and an American child did not come home from the playground or the baseball diamond. Why have countries like Mozambique and Azerbaijan, the most mine-strewn and mine-reliant countries on the planet, signed this document while tile United States has not?

The United States has refused to join this comprehensive initiative to end U.S. development and deployment of antipersonnel land mines on the grounds that U.S service members, especially in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, will be compromised without mine defenses. Has the Clinton administration so quickly forgotten that 33 percent of U.S. casualties in Vietnam were mine-related? Has your president forgotten that 90 percent of U.S. mine casualties were inflicted by American mines?

The United States must remember the bloody, debilitating history of land mines that have killed, in some instances, the very American soldiers that have laid them. To sign the treaty is not only a humane choice but a militarily responsible one as well. For me, the reason why the country should sign and sign now is written on my body. We must get to the root of the problem.

Last month, my friend Hol Pros interviewed 319 land-mine victims in one district. How many more people must die? President Clinton still has time to commit to a truly mine-flee world. If he doesn't, I ask that candidates aspiring to be your next president say that they will.

Tun Channareth is a Cambodian land-mine survivor who serves as an ambassador for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace in 1997. This month, he spoke in Des Moines, Iowa, at an event sponsored by Iowans to Ban Landmines. He told his story to Nathaniel A. Raymond, who works for Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based peace group.

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