Keeps People Out, Keeps People In: Landmines in Mali and Syria

In most places landmines serve, in the particular military parlance, as area denial weapons: they are intended to prevent the entry or use of space by opponents.  Landmines can be laid to establish defensive perimeters, reinforce borders or slow advances.  In some instances, landmines have become weapons of terror; placed randomly they maim and kill passers-by who may have no military affiliations.  There is, however, an even more insidious use for mines: to keep people in areas and prevent their fleeing.

Perhaps the most famous extant minefield is the one in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.  South Korea and the United States may claim that the minefield in the DMZ (which has had the absurd consequence of becoming a pristine nature preserve) prevents the invasion of South Korea by the million-person strong army of North Korea.  However, equally important is the fact that the minefield prevents North Koreans from defecting to South Korea.  In this regard, the minefield serves North Korea in much the same way that the Berlin Wall served the former East Germany: it prevented dissidents from fleeing the oppressive regimes. Behind the DMZ minefield millions starve with little hope of escape.  The Wall and the minefield may have started their existence as defensive structures but over time they became symbols of the regimes and demonstrated the control of the regimes over the lives of their people. 

The Korean minefield was not intended to keep North Koreans from defecting; that has merely become one of its many benefits to the North Korean regime.  However, in two on-going conflicts, landmines have been used to deliberately prevent people from leaving areas.

In Syria, Bashar Al Assad’s regime has been fighting against a persistent armed opposition in the country for well over a year.  Launched in conjunction with the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled the Egyptian, Libyan and Tunisian governments, the Syrian uprising has been subject to a brutal crackdown with thousands of people killed.  In March of this year, the Assad regime began to lay landmines along the borders with Lebanon and Turkey to prevent opposition actors from traveling to the refugee camps established in those countries.  The Assad regime fears that the refugee camps could become bases for armed opposition activity.  Also, and perhaps more importantly, the Assad regime wants to control any news emerging from the country.  The Syrian government has presented the crackdown as a response to terrorism and labeled the opposition as “terrorists.”  By placing landmines along its borders, Syria prevents the release of any footage of protests or documentation of violence committed by the regime against the opposition.  According to reports, 100 to 200 people fled Syria every day this spring and a total of 30,000 Syrians were living in Turkish and Lebanese refugee camps, but the “numbers of refugees would probably be higher if it wasn’t so difficult to get across the border, because of the minefields and numbers of Syrian soldiers in the area” (Reuters; BBC News). 

In Mali, the recent uprisings in the north of the country by Tuareg rebels and by Islamists have upset the fragile democracy that existed in this Sahelian country.  Mali had long been an advocate for landmine control, calling for their ban in 1995 and putting in place national legislation criminalizing the possession, sale or use of anti-personnel mines in accordance with the Mine Ban Treaty (International Committee of the Red Cross).  Despite these efforts, the frequent uprisings by Tuareg rebels led to the continued presence and threat from landmines in the country with casualties from landmines reported in recent years (Mail and Guardian). 

The Tuareg people formed a substantial portion of Gaddhafi’s mercenary army in Libya and with the fall of the Gaddhafi regime, the Libyan trained and armed Tuaregs launched their latest uprising in northern Mali.  This uprising coincided with continued efforts by Al Qaeda-linked Islamists to gain and secure a foothold in the Sahel region.  In a February 2012 post I had explored the question of why landmines had not yet been used in northern Mali despite the likelihood of the Tuaregs and the Islamists possessing mines looted from Gaddhafi’s stockpiles.  In the post I suggested that as long as the rebels were mobile, landmines would not be tactically useful, but if the conflict ever got bogged down or if the rebels sought to establish a particular stronghold, then we would see landmines being used (Landmines in Africa). This past week, those predictions came true.

First, it is important to note that the Tuaregs, organized under the National Movement for the Liberation of Anzawad (MNLA), and the Islamists, affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and organized as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), are not allied with each other.  They have been linked in various press reports and have both been fighting against the Malian government, but they are independent and unaffiliated.  MUJAO are the ones accused – by the Tuaregs – of using landmines in northern Mali.

MUJAO have seized and occupy the historic city of Timbuktu, an Islamic center of learning and the heartland of the Tuareg people.  This occupation puts the Islamists and Tuaregs in direct opposition and the Islamists are trying to consolidate their hold over Timbuktu and surrounding villages in anticipation of an attack by Malian forces, Tuaregs or a ECOWAS-organized peace-making force.  The Islamists have started to destroy Islamic shrines and historic mosques in Timbuktu as they are seen as idolatrous under the harsh interpretation of Sharia law used by the Islamists.  The destruction of the mosques constitutes a war crime under the International Criminal Court. 

In addition to the destruction of the mosques (reminiscent of the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist temples in Afghanistan), the Islamists have surrounded the city of Gao with landmines.  Gao lies on the banks of the Niger River and with 90,000 residents is one of the largest cities in northern Mali.  The MNLA accuses the Islamists of planting the landmines to prevent the people of Gao.  The Islamists are accused of “using the population [of Gao] as hostages, as a human shield to protect itself from an MNLA counter-attack” (Al Arabiya; International Business Times).  If true, this would be another war crime perpetrated by the Islamists and an insidious and deliberate use of landmines against civilians.

Michael P. Moore, July 11, 2012

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