The Mere Specter of Land Mines Still Haunts Millions

Thousands of people are killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance every year, and just the fear of hidden explosives affects communities.

Left to right: UN Assistant Secretary-General for the Rule of Law Dmitry Titov, UN Japanese Ambassador Kazuyoski Umemoto, and UNMAS Director Agnès Marcaillou

Rebuilding communities torn by war is a monumental task, one made far more difficult by the nasty remnants conflict leaves behind: anti-personnel mines, IEDs, and other unexploded ordnance that's lurking out of sight. Thousands of people worldwide are killed or maimed by unexploded weapons every year, and the mere specter of explosives lying hidden around communities affects millions.

"Remember that, every time you see major conflicts on TV, whether it's the Central African Republic, South Sudan, or Syria, these countries are affected and contaminated [by explosives]," said UN Mine Action Service Director Agnès Marcaillou.

​This morning, Marcaillou and UNMAS hosted a release event for Sweeper, an interactive app designed to educate users on the prevalence and danger of anti-personnel mines. Appropriately launched on the UN's International Mine Awareness Day, Sweeper, which was built by digital marketing agency Critical Mass, uses Bluetooth-enabled location beacons to act as "mines." When you walk by one of the beacons, you get digitally blown up, replete with sound effects that were certainly enough to make me jump.

The app also features data on the land mines still strewn about the world, even after the 1999 global ban on the use of anti-personnel mines. And to be sure, the stats remain astounding; according to UNMAS, there's one land mine for every 17 children on Earth, and at least 10 people a day are killed or injured by them. But beyond that, a big point UNMAS wants to drive home is the effect the simple fear of explosives can have on communities.

"Look out into the city and imagine there's just one mine out there, just one" said photographer Marco Grob, who shot photos of victims of unexploded ordnance for the campaign. "The city would stand still."

It's an excellent point, one hammered home by Grob's lament that millions of people obsess over the Kardashians, while many people don't even know mines exist.

A screenshot from Sweeper.

UNMAS's mission is to change that. Marcaillou noted that education and outreach is just as much a part of what her organization does as actual mine disposal efforts. 

"There's a Japanese saying: 'To hear about something 100 times is less impactful than seeing it it one time," UN Japanese Ambassador Kazuyoski Umemoto said. By way of introducing the ambassador, Marcaillou explained that Japan has been the leading individual country donor to UNMAS's mission in recent years.

With direct mine-clearing efforts, projects to equip and train local teams have produced big results. According to UNMAS's most recent report, the group supported explosive-clearing programs in 17 countries in 2012. In total, those programs destroyed 1.15 million explosive devices, clearing around 16,000 square kilometers of land. Marcaillou said that such efforts are key to helping local communities, as well as improving the ability of the UN and NGOs to help deliver aid. 

"The UN is crippled if we cannot survey an area and make it safe for peacekeepers," she said.

Of course, the goal is to help build more support for ordnance clearing efforts and UNMAS specifically, which counts a staff of about 30 in the UN headquarters in New York. UNMAS believes that Sweeper will help make the mine problem more real for people who've never had to worry about stepping on a bomb, and hopes that those people will turn around and support its mission. Marcaillou said she believes that, with enough support, the unexploded ordnance problem could be solved within our lifetimes.

"One day kids in Syria will be able to play basketball in the street and cross the road without fear of dying," she said.