It has been a little over a year since Bhagwati Gautam of Shoba village in Rukum stepped on an army landmine. After five months in hospital, she walks with a crutch and has turned into an anti-landmine activist. "I was lucky, I only lost my right leg, most others lost their lives," says Bhagwati who was in Kathmandu last week to join delegates from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines as they met government officials, the army, police and Maoist leaders.
Accompanying Bhagwati is Hari Jang Shah, who is also from Shoba village and was injured with four others in a Maoist booby trap four years ago. Both Bhagwati and Hari have got over the initial trauma of their injuries, but are hurt by official apathy to victims like themselves.
Despite the ceasefire, the danger of landmines and unexploded ordnance will continue to be a threat to the lives and limbs of thousands of Nepalis. The Royal Nepali Army admits it has laid approximately 10,000 anti-personnel mines on the perimeter of its bases all over Nepal to defend them from Maoist attacks. But, ironically, most soldiers killed or wounded so far have stepped on the army's own mines. Many others were injured in landmine explosions set off by Maoists on highways, and are still undergoing rehabilitaton at the military hospital in Chhauni.
The Maoists use command-detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) made from pipes and pressure cookers which are allowed by international anti-landmine laws, but unexploded bombs litter the countryside. The first step to removing this danger should be for both sides to provide maps of where the devices are located.
According to official tallies, 202 people were killed by landmines and other explosives and more than 500 were injured last year alone. Of the dead, 52 were women, children and non-combatants, and half the total number injured were civilians. Although the number of landmine deaths have dropped dramatically in the six months after the ceasefire, people are still being killed and maimed. In the past week, landmines have killed a woman in Pyuthan and two farmers were wounded in Dhanusha and Salyan. Last month, a soldier who had survived a helicopter crash at the telecom tower in Mahadevdanda was killed when he stepped on an army mine at the accident site.
"The difference between landmines and other weapons is that they are indiscriminate, and they remain long after the conflict is over," explains Purna Shoba Chitrakar, coordinator of the Nepal Campaign to Ban Landmines. "The threat in Nepal is not as severe as in Afghanistan or Cambodia, but 702 deaths in a year is huge by Nepali standards."
The Nepal Campaign is trying to get the government to agree to sign the 1997 Ottawa Convention that bans use, storage and transportation of landmines, and the Maoists to commit not to use anti-personnel mines under Geneva Call, the organisation that monitors land mine use by non-state groups.
More immediately, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines wants an inclusion of a clause on prohibiting the use of landmines in the Code of Conduct between the government and the Maoists. "The ceasefire is an opportunity to address the situation on the ground immediately as a part of the peace process," Miriam Coronel Ferrer of the International Camapign to Ban Landmines told us.
Victims of landmines like Bhagwati are not hopeful that Kathmandu is going to sign the Ottawa Treaty anytime soon, for now they need help to meet medical bills and rehabilitation for other victims like themselves. The government has helped pay for the treatment of civilians wounded in the emergency, but there is a big backlog of reimbursement to Bheri Zonal Hospital in Nepalganj and the Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu.
Says Bhagwati: "All we are saying is, help us stand on our own feet."
(Ban Landmines Campaign Nepal [email protected])