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Nicaragua struggling to defuse land mines

TUESDAY, FEB. 27, 2007

SAN FERNANDO, Nicaragua – In the steep, pine-covered hills of northern Nicaragua, grade-schoolers get a workbook that looks like any other. But it doesn’t say “See Spot Run.”

It tells of a woman hearing an explosion and her son running to tell her that “La Hormiga,” her favorite cow, has been killed by a mine.

Livestock is the least of the problem. Land mines have killed 82 people and injured 905 since 1990, when Nicaragua’s civil war ended, Daniel Ortega and his Sandinistas were defeated in the polls, and the U.S.-funded Contras laid down their arms.

Now it’s Ortega’s problem again. The Sandinista leader, on whose watch most of the mines were planted by both sides, returned to office last month after a 17-year absence from the presidency.

The U.S. and others are willing to pay for an international training center for mine removal and are waiting for Ortega’s government to come up with a specific proposal.

Meanwhile, the military, financed and trained by the Organization of American States, the United States, United Nations, Japan and others, is working hard to disarm the thousands of mines that still lurk under Nicaraguan soil.

Nicaraguan soldiers have become so good at it that they were sent to Iraq to detonate explosives. They also have destroyed their own arsenals of mines and helped several South American countries do the same. But Nicaragua itself is the only Central American nation not yet declared mine-free.

Defense Minister Avil Ramirez said 1,000 to 1,200 mines are blown up each month. But it’s extremely dangerous work in which five soldiers have been killed and 33 wounded.

The country had hoped to be mine-free by the end of 2006 but will need another year because, Ramirez says, new reports of mined areas keep coming in.

Ramirez estimates that Nicaragua still has 22,000 mines and that some 29,000 Nicaraguans live within three miles of them. According to the OAS, about 3,000 mines were laid in Honduras and 1,000 in Costa Rica along their borders with Nicaragua, mostly by Contra rebels.

Nicaragua’s problem is much bigger.

At least 160,589 mines were planted by the Sandinista army alone in the 1980s, mostly targeting Contra troops coming from Honduras. Most Sandinista minefields were mapped, but the Contras rarely kept track of theirs, and fleeing troops on both sides laid mines randomly to cover their retreat, Ramirez said.

The mines can stay live for decades.

“Our toughest job lies ahead of us,” said Maj. Francisco Moncada. “Of the minefields we have worked recently in this area, 20 percent had not been charted. We did not know they existed.”

Work is slow and tedious. A man sweeps a metal detector along a path until it beeps. Then another man with a trowel and a long narrow probe spends up to 40 minutes working the soil to determine what’s there. If it is a mine, it’s blown up.

Shrapnel and spent bullets often lead the searchers astray. Only about one in every 20 beeps uncovers a mine, said Maj. Reynaldo Valdivia, who directs the mine removal sector in San Fernando, about 10 miles from the Honduran border.

In 1990, Blanca Nubia was 11 and playing near her home on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. “I didn’t hear the explosion. I didn’t see the flash,” she said.

She awoke missing half her left arm and most of the fingers on her right hand.

Today, Nubia is among hundreds of mine victims benefiting from OAS help. After nine months of training, she works as a seamstress. Others learn shoemaking, woodworking, livestock management or receive low-cost loans for small businesses.

“Of the first 320 who completed training, 75 percent were earning a living within six months,” said Carlos Orozco, who directs the OAS mine removal and victim rehabilitation effort in Nicaragua.


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