[INTERVIEW] Korea could bring attention back to vital mine-clearing work

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[INTERVIEW] Korea could bring attention back to vital mine-clearing work

Tomaz Lovrencic, director of ITF Enhancing Human Security, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Seoul on Friday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Tomaz Lovrencic, director of ITF Enhancing Human Security, speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Seoul on Friday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

As war continues in Ukraine, the issue of demining and assisting land mine victims needs global attention, said Tomaz Lovrencic, director of ITF Enhancing Human Security, a Slovenian organization that clears landmines around the world.  
 
Celebrities from Korea may have a role to play.
 
“If it were once royals who drew attention to this issue, today it could be the stars of Hollywood or K-pop, like BTS,” said Lovrencic in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Seoul on Friday.  
 
It was Lovrencic’s second visit to the country since he began heading the organization in 2017. He first came as part of a Slovenian presidential delegation in 2018.  
 
Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing protective gear on Jan. 15, 1997, during a briefing by the British land-mine sweeping organisation Halo Trust in Huambo, central Angola, one of the most densely mined areas in the country. [AP/YONHAP]

Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing protective gear on Jan. 15, 1997, during a briefing by the British land-mine sweeping organisation Halo Trust in Huambo, central Angola, one of the most densely mined areas in the country. [AP/YONHAP]

Korea is one of the top donors to ITF, established in 1998 by Slovenia. Korea has donated $1.8 million since 2000, according to the ITF.
 
“Everyone remembers when Princess Diana walked in a minefield in Angola in early 1997, or met with civilian victims of anti-personnel mines in Bosnia Herzegovina later that year,” said Lovrencic. “But after her, no one really took up the issue, even though the work we do is so important, because it’s about returning the dignity to people who’ve been robbed of it.”
 
The organization, once known as International Trust Fund for Demining and Mine Victims Assistance, began its work in Bosnia Herzegovina and expanded to demining and victim assistance in over a dozen countries including Afghanistan, Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia.
 
To hear more about ITF’s work, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Lovrencic during his recent visit to Seoul. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.  
 
What brings you to Korea this time?
The Korean government is one of the key donors to our humanitarian program to help countries get rid of their land mines and also to help those who have stepped on landmines to receive appropriate care. There are only a few countries in the world that have an active policy on supporting such humanitarian activities, and in many cases, it’s usually because the nation and its people have experienced the devastation of war.  
 
President Yoon Suk-yeol, right, shakes hands with Sgt. First Class Ha Jae-heon, left, who had lost his legs in a 2015 mine blast in the demilitarized zone in the inter-Korean border, at the Yongsan presidential office on June 9. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

President Yoon Suk-yeol, right, shakes hands with Sgt. First Class Ha Jae-heon, left, who had lost his legs in a 2015 mine blast in the demilitarized zone in the inter-Korean border, at the Yongsan presidential office on June 9. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

The Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone, estimated to have around 2 million mines, could be the highest density of land mines in the world. The two Koreas once worked together on clearing these mines, but the project fell through when North Korea resumed missiles tests in 2019. Citing such security circumstances, Seoul hasn’t joined the Ottawa Treaty, also known as the Mine Ban Treaty. Is this a concern for the ITF?
No, because there is no correlation between the country’s funding for demining activities and whether it is a signatory [of the treaty]. In the future, all these countries [that are not yet signatories of the Ottawa Treaty] may accede to it. The question should be what can be done today to help those who live next to land mines. Here in the Republic of Korea, you are in the immediate vicinity of the biggest minefield in the world, and so you understand perhaps better the importance of the issue.  
 
Where do the projects funded by Korea take place?
We are specifically working in five countries with Korea’s funding: Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Serbia and in Bosnia Herzegovina. One of the projects in Serbia was on mine clearance near an area of a local school. Imagine having to send children to school every morning knowing they would have to take a path close to a minefield! This has been resolved and the area has been declared free of mines finally. In Palestine, we have been working on a program for mental health of children and young victims of land mines. The psychological impact for those injured from mine detonation is very serious, so we are working with trainees to implement these programs to help young victims recuperate and come back to schools.  
Dog Patron called Bullet at an award ceremony for his owner, a sapper, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, May 8, 2022. [AP/YONHAP]

Dog Patron called Bullet at an award ceremony for his owner, a sapper, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, May 8, 2022. [AP/YONHAP]

 
The incidents of Ukrainian civilians tripping on mines and losing their lives or getting heavily injured have been on the rise. How is the ITF working on the ground in Ukraine?
Typically, in demining, you would first identify an area [where] mines and other unexploded ordinance [are suspected to be], and that would include not only anti-personnel and anti-tank mines but also shells that did not explode. If Russians launched perhaps 60,000 [shells] per day, [it’s estimated that] up to one half do not explode. They remain a threat to anyone who's walking around in these areas, which can be in urban areas and also in fields.

As step number one, we need to identify which areas these are through non-technical surveys, which we are doing in Kharkiv, Kyiv and Poltava. ITF is doing this right now with the Ukrainian authorities. The steps from there are technical surveys that would define exactly where explosive remnants are, and then clearance.
 
Can you describe to us incidents in which mine victims were able to recover with assistance from the ITF?
We helped a girl who lost her mother to a Russian missile that hit a promenade in Mariupol, Ukraine, in 2015. She was just 12 years old at the time, and was found hiding behind her mother’s body. She herself lost a leg, so we got funding to bring her to Slovenia and receive treatment, including on prosthetics. Today, she is a sportswoman, she can climb and swim. When you meet these people in person, they are a tremendous source of inspiration, having gone through something that horrible and yet overcoming it. They are heroes.
 
Parts of Europe are said to have mines planted more than a century ago, during the First World War, that are still active. Are there any technological developments to help speed up demining work?
Unfortunately, most demining work is still done manually. There are machines that can be employed for this work, but only on flat land. Mines are strategically placed where the topography transforms, usually in a narrow pathway or gorge. In some cases, we are relying on mine-detection dogs, which have been quite effective. When the ITF works on site, we also make sure we’re working with locals who know the terrain. We need more countries and actors on board: the problem is not so much with those who are already around the table; the problem is those who are absent.
A file photo dated June 13, 2018, shows a warning sign before an area estimated to have land mines. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

A file photo dated June 13, 2018, shows a warning sign before an area estimated to have land mines. [JOONGANG PHOTO]


BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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