KU professor worries as land-mine focus fades

Lawrence,Kansas (11-07-2003)

From Lawrence Journal World
By Terry Rombeck

Land mines were an everyday part of Hang Le's childhood in the mid-1970s.

The poor people living in her village in northwest Vietnam would go to sandbagged trenches formerly used by American soldiers and cut the burlap from the bags to make clothes.

Often, they'd step on the explosives hidden under the earth's surface and wouldn't make it back to the village.

"I remember every day hearing explosions in my village," said Le, now a graduate student at Kansas University. "I was young and wasn't scared of death, so I'd go watch the death and casualties. Some of the dead were people I knew."

Even now -- more than 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War -- there are an estimated 3.5 million land mines in Le's home country. Worldwide, the United Nations estimates there are 110 million land mines in 68 countries. About 10,000 people are killed or maimed by mines each year.

Federal cutbacks
But while land mines continue to be an international issue, U.S. support for land mine removal has decreased the past two years. According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the United States will give $76.9 million to countries for land mine removal this year, $5 million less than last year and $23.7 million less than 2001.

The federal government's funding for mine-related research also has been cut in recent years. One program at the Department of Defense that ballooned to $15 million for mine detection projects during the mid-1990s has been scaled back to about $5 million, the amount previous to the increase.

Jim Stiles, a KU professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is a victim of that funding decrease. He worked on a five-year Defense Department project that developed radar to detect land mines. His funding expired last year, though investigators at several other universities continued on their projects.

Stiles said while new research for mine detection was focused on methods that have the most promise -- such as MRI technology that can determine both the size, shape and material of underground objects, rather than radar that can only show size and shape -- he's concerned that new homeland security research initiatives will take the focus away from land mines.

In the 1990s, he said, Princess Diana's advocacy and the war in Bosnia made land mines a topic of household conversation.

"The attention gets switched to other things," Stiles said. "The land mine thing was on the front page, and there was a lot of interest in that. Since then, we had Sept. 11 and a lot of anti-terrorism (research) development -- how do we detect guns and bombs, not land mines."

Negative effects'
Meanwhile, the mines still sit in the ground. Angola, Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Vietnam have the worst problems, according to the United Nations.

In Vietnam, Le said, the mines continue to control many parts of life there, including where people can live and farm and where children can play.

"The negative effects of war are so pervasive," she said. "Almost 30 years have passed, and we're still talking about land mines."

She noted that government money spent on mine removal could be spent on social services, and time children spend learning about safety around mines could be spent learning about other subjects.

Mapping mines
While Stiles had his mine research funding cut, another KU researcher is seeking international funds for a mine project.

Jerry Dobson, professor of geography, is working for funding with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining for several projects, including using Geographical Information Systems to determine the largest mine fields near populated areas. That could help officials decide priorities when removing mines.

He also is working on better ways to collect mine data remotely in the field, and he is developing a standard set of symbols that can be used by cartographers around the world when mapping mine fields.

Dobson traveled to the Balkans last summer to survey the fields first-hand. He noted that new mines are planted every time there is a new conflict in the region.

"I think there is improvement, but the problem is, once hostilities start going again, it's like a ratcheting effect -- it gets better and better until there's a new outbreak," he said. "Then you have to deal with it all again."

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