by Dennis Barlow, Director, MAIC
The partnerships and spirit which develop within the context
of mine action activities sometimes seem almost as important as the remediation
of landmines itself.
I am reminded of a time earlier this year when James Madison
University was hosting a landmine conference. At a working supper, I was having
a wonderful time enjoying the fellowship and camaraderie, which had enveloped
the diners at my table. It suddenly struck me that my dinner companions were
Albanians and Nicaraguans. Ten years ago, we would not even had been allowed to
meet with each other, much less plan cooperative ventures together. But it went
beyond that—in these new friends I discovered a kind of kinship, understanding
and humor that has become the norm for those of us involved in the thorny world
of mine action.
In the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, and in
preparation for this issue of the MAIC Journal, I tried to assess new feelings
and dynamics which might now bear on mine action in the Near and Middle East.
The first thing I realized was that, possibly without knowing
it, those of us involved in mine action have been wonderfully — perhaps
uniquely— blessed. We have developed such a singleness of purpose within a
complex environment that we have not allowed ourselves the luxury of dwelling
on, or even being aware of, cultural or racial differences. They simply do not
matter when the goal is to preserve lives, limbs and eyes and to facilitate a
very basic form of human happiness. A concern for landmine victims and the
plight of peoples assailed by this menace have carried us far beyond a
cognizance of religion or ethnicity and into a single desire to improve the lot
of innocent people whose very existence is threatened by a hideous and
frustrating foe. While it may sound maudlin, it is a simple indelible fact that
in all of my travels, and without exception, in the six years in which I have
been involved in mine action, I have never, ever heard anyone in our global
community differentiate among any racial, national or cultural group. Donor
countries, corporations, NGOs, military units, regional and international
organizations, policy makers, tacticians, logisticians, health organizations;
none have ever postulated that a people or region at risk from landmines is more
or less deserving of aid than another.
I also recalled how many wonderful mine action practitioners
are from Middle or Near Eastern countries. Maybe it would be best if I never
thought of my compatriots in terms of their nationalities, and maybe I never
would have had it not been for the events of late summer. But this mental review
has awakened in me a realization of how many Muslim and Arab players there have
been in the mine action programs and the enormous good that they have done. I
also realized that I am in a position unlike most Americans; they do not have
much of an opportunity to gain a firsthand knowledge and appreciation of the
indigenous people and cultures of South Central Asia or in the Middle East.
This current issue of the Journal alone is testimony
to the interest and energy involved in mine action in the Middle East; more
articles were submitted and organizations involved in this edition than in any
issue of the Journal over its four year existence. Regional conferences,
innovative Mine Action Centers, the creation of altruistic demining NGOs and
comprehensive national programs have been hallmarks of programs in this region.
One hope is that as we go forward with mine action that there
will be no "chill" as global organizations continue their work in the
Near East and the Middle East.
There is also a flip side to this phenomenon. Just as many
Americans do not understand Muslim or Arab concerns, many in the Middle East do
not understand the complex nature of the American psyche. Many people around the
world, not just Arabs and Muslims, view Americans as a smug, self-centered and
materialistic people who are not capable of understanding or caring about the
plight of others. While most Americans are indeed fortunate to have a high
standard of living, it would be most erroneous to infer that they lack a basic
morality and sense of justice and caring. It is indeed this set of
characteristics, along with a love of liberty, which perhaps most clearly
defines what it is to be an American. However diverse Americans may be in other
criteria, Americans are united in wanting to do good.
Therefore it seems to me that the best thing that the global humanitarian
demining community can do is what President Bush has asked the American people
to do; to go about its work. There are those who despise aspects of Western
culture, and there are those who blame entire nationalities and religions for
single acts of barbarism. We cannot stop these people from being negative. But
rather than curse their darkness we can light the way to better international
understanding — as well as the more direct work of ameliorating the
devastating effects of landmines — by continuing to work together seamlessly
to give the world an example of global unity and trust.