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War's insidious litter: cluster bombs

On April 24, five Kosovar brothers and two cousins ranging in age from 3 to 14 were playing in a field outside Doganovic, Kosovo. They found a small yellow canister the size of a soda can. As two of the cousins went to tell adults, one of the brothers began to pry open the canister.

The explosion killed all the brothers and severely injured their two cousins.

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That canister was a cluster bomb dropped by NATO forces. Much like land mines, unexploded cluster bombs pose enduring threats to innocent people.

The international treaty to ban the manufacture and use of land mines, signed by 135 countries and ratified by 81 of the signatories, became law March 1. The United States has refused to sign.

Some people in the US military oppose signing because the treaty's definition of land mines is broad enough to cover cluster bombs. Under the treaty, an antipersonnel mine is one "designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person and that will incapacitate, injure or kill one or more persons." Since manufacturers of cluster bombs calculate "dud rates" into their designs, cluster bombs can be included under the definition.

Cluster munitions are containers that break open in midair, scattering smaller bombs the size of soda cans or lawn darts.

They may be dropped from aircraft or shot from rocket launchers and artillery projectiles. These systems often carry hundreds of the cluster munitions, saturating an area with flying shards of steel.

The smaller bombs are designed to explode near the time of impact. But not all of them do. Instead, unexploded bombs litter the target area, silent and nondescript, until picked up by a child or kicked by a passerby.

Unexploded bombs may rest on top of the soil in clear view -like the one found in April 1999 by a police officer in the northern Albania town of Tropoje. The officer picked up a Serbian-fired cluster bomb the size of a small soda bottle. He died instantly.

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Cluster munitions may also hide themselves if they land in weeds, soft soil, sand, or water. Alternatively, those on top of the ground may become buried by vegetation or soil erosion. In this way they become hidden killers, blending into their surroundings like land mines.

In use for decades, cluster munitions are among the most indiscriminate weapons in military arsenals. These munitions not only cause physical suffering and loss, but also hinder agricultural and economic development of the land years into the future. Villagers understandably are reluctant to work land they know to be littered with unexploded bombs.

Tragically, the war in Yugoslavia will only illustrate what is already known about these weapons from places like Laos, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Chechnya.

A senior NATO commander recognized in April that at least 5 percent of NATO's cluster bombs fail to explode upon impact. Commenting on Yugoslavia, he noted that "the place is littered with thousands of these things.

Bomb disposal experts in Laos, where millions of these munitions still lie unexploded from the Vietnam War, have said repeatedly that cluster munitions become less stable and therefore more dangerous with each passing year.

A US military service procedures report on unexploded ordnance (known as UXO) states that even though UXO is not a land mine, UXO hazards pose problems similar to those of mines because they threaten personnel safety and hamper troop movement and maneuvering on the battlefield.

The similarity of cluster weapons to land mines is apparent in their violation of international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit the use of indiscriminate weapons and those that cause unnecessary suffering. The military report states there is no system to track unexploded munitions, a process done with land mines before troops move through the area. The treaty on certain conventional weapons requires the mapping and marking of mine fields.

The rate at which cluster bombs fail to explode at the intended time is 5 to 30 percent. Use of cluster bombs, then, is tantamount to the creation of uncharted mine fields.

Tragically, we can be almost certain that a deadly "toy" deposited by Serb or NATO forces today in Kosovo will lie in wait to kill the grandchildren of returned refugees many tomorrows into the future.

Now is the time for the US to sign the treaty banning land mines. The war in Yugoslavia illustrates why we must also end the production and use of cluster bombs.

*Virgil Wiebe, a lawyer, is a consultant to the Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pa. Titus Peachey is staff associate for peace education at the committee.

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