MANAGUA – Twenty-one years after the war between Sandinista and contra forces ended, peace has finally come to the northern mountains of Nicaragua.
The Organization of American States (OAS) last week declared Nicaragua free of all anti-personnel mines, making Central America the first post-conflict region in the world to rid itself of all landmines.
“For a nation that in 1990 had more than half a million people living in the proximity of minefields, this is an extraordinary achievement,” said Abraham Stein, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multidimensional Security for the OAS.
The effort was extraordinary indeed. The landmine-removal program cost $81 million over 21 years and involved the support of 23 countries.
The human cost was even greater. Landmines planted here by Sandinistas and contras in the 1980s have claimed 87 lives and injured 1,234 people. Most of the victims have been civilians.
Nicaragua’s tireless team of army sappers, whom President Daniel Ortega this week referred to as “anonymous heroes,” also paid a heavy price for their efforts. Six sappers were killed and 44 injured during the demining process, according to the military.
Their achievements, however, are remarkable. In 21 years, sappers cleared and destroyed 179,970 mines in 74 municipalities in the extreme north and south of the country.
The Nicaraguan Army also destroyed 135,000 stockpiled mines, truly making the country landmine-free.
What’s even more incredible is that the mine-removal efforts, which started in 1989 under the revolutionary Sandinista government, continued methodically over the next five administrations, making Nicaragua’s mine-removal program one of the few state policies that has endured the country’s radical administrative changes over the years.
“It became a state policy independent of the changes in government; it was continued as a state policy until its culmination this month,” President Ortega said during the June 18 ceremony to declare the country landmine-free.
The international community, which provided $66 million towards the demining operation here, is also celebrating Nicaragua’s achievement.
“Canada congratulates the government and people of Nicaragua on this remarkable achievement and commends the courage of the men and women who risked their lives to clear Nicaragua of these devices and other explosives from past conflicts,” said Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of State of Foreign
Canada, which donated $6 million to the effort, was one of the leading multilateral donors behind Nicaragua’s landmine removal program.
The Canadian government hopes that Nicaragua’s achievement will give encouragement to other post-conflict zones that are trying to comply with the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, known more neatly as the Ottawa Convention.
“Central America becoming free of antipersonnel mines is a significant milestone on the road to our goal of a mine-free world,” said Minister Kent in a statement.
The removal of landmines along 313 kilometers of Nicaragua’s northern border and 96 kms on the southern border means 12 million square meters of previously unused land can now be put back to work for the nearly 2 million people who live in those areas.
Being declared landmine-free not only offers more security to campesinos who work in and travel through the border regions, but it also sends a clear message that Nicaragua is done with war.
“War is a scourge. It doesn’t represent a way to resolve conflicts; it generates new complex conflicts. It is an adventure without return that threatens the present and puts the future at risk,” said Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.
The former archbishop of Managua and head of the Sandinista government’s commission on reconciliation and peace, added, “It’s necessary to put an end to conflict, but it’s also urgent to cure the wounds and deal with the post-war consequences.”
The OAS’ Stein noted that lots of work remains to be done, even after the country is declared free of landmines.
“We have to keep working to rehabilitate the demined areas, particularly to promote the economic and social wellbeing of the communities, as well as the rehabilitation and social reintegration of landmine victims,” Stein said, adding that the OAS “ratifies its promise to continue supporting important initiatives.”
Being declared landmine-free is also not a guarantee that every last landmine has been found and removed. Part of what complicated the demining efforts was the discovery of unregistered minefields or landmines that had been moved by landslides and heavy rains over the years. A total of 40,000 unregistered mines were discovered and removed.
As a result, the experts insist, education efforts must continue so that anyone who happens across a stray mine in the years to come will know to not touch it and what authorities to alert.
“The issue of demining doesn’t disappear now just because we have achieved our goals. We already know that we need to maintain small anti-mining teams ready to respond to mines or bombs that could still be out there in areas that weren’t registered,” President Ortega said.
Despite the possibility of remaining ordnances, the Nicaraguan Army’s all-clear announcement last week was music to the ears of thousands of people who have been waiting patiently for two decades for the green light to return to their ancestral lands.
“People are still afraid; we still can’t enter the fields to work,” indigenous leader Diego Antonio Gómez told The Nica Times in December, 2008, near the northern border town of Mozonte. “We are waiting for all the mines to get cleared so we can get back to work. This land is very fertile for production.”
For Gómez and thousands of others, that day has finally come.