March 14, 2008

Old landmines threaten lives and U.S. international relations, says Nobel laureate Rae McGrath

Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate Rae McGrath is in the bridge-building business, both literally and figuratively. In Professor Charles Geisler's Global Conflict and Terrorism class March 13, he showed a photo of a bridge he helped restore in a small Afghan town and described how villagers refused to drive their tractors over it.

"They said: 'We're not going to drive over that. The road on the other side has got mines in it.'"

"Why didn't you tell me before?" McGrath asked.

"'Because then you wouldn't have built the bridge,'" they responded, "'and then you wouldn't have helped us clear the mines.'"

McGrath, who shared the Nobel Prize with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1997, addressed the profound impact that abandoned weapons have on civilians and emphasized the responsibility of the United States, Britain and other countries to clear such countries as Afghanistan of old explosives -- work he has been doing for years.

"The problems that these weapons cause in the post-conflict period destroy not just people's lives but the fabric of people's experiences," McGrath said. "If you're a farmer, and you're frightened of the land, what does it do to you?"

McGrath spent 18 years in the military and since then has been earning the trust of civilians in war-torn regions, painstakingly training them to remove the mines that could kill or maim them and their children.

Old mines and mortars are such common objects near battlefields that locals often lose their natural fear of the weapons. McGrath told stories of children who would break apart artillery shells to salvage the metal pieces to sell. Mortars that have degraded over time can be set off by a feather-light touch, and they were often stored (and then abandoned) in large numbers.

"It's our job," he said, "to make ourselves and our governments accountable." Not only that, he said, but consider the possible link between abandoned weapons and continuing conflict and terrorism.

"If you leave people in a situation," he said, "even if you're trying to help them, where you've damaged their whole lives, do you think that's winning hearts and minds? Do you think that's improving human security in the world? Do you think that's building trust between nations like our own and the poorer nations in the world?"

Amelia Apfel '08 is a writer intern with the Cornell Chronicle.