On ‘International Land Mine Awareness Day’

The official Twitter of Pope Francis says today is “International Land Mine Awareness Day.” So here is one of my favorite Italo Calvino short stories- about a young soldier and a mine field.

A few years ago I was once hiking alone in the Golan Heights of northern Israel next to the Israel/Syria border. It is a beautiful and highly-contested land, unfortunately poisoned by land mines. Safe hiking paths in the area take you past bullet riddled homes, bombed-out buildings, and crumbling Ottoman structures from battles that range from WWI to the Six Day War, when Israel took the territory from Syria. Today the area just north of the Golan Heights is occupied by ISIS and Syrian rebel forces.

At one point in my hike along a barbed wire fence with “Danger Mines” signs on it (in Hebrew/ Arabic/ English) I saw an abandoned Ottoman mansion about 50 meters inside the fence. No one was around for kilometers, and I crawled under the barbed wire fence and walked across the potential mine field to explore the building (sorry Mom). I’m still here. There were a couple roaming cattle in the pasture, so I figured they probably tested the ground first.

It was a dumb thing to do, and I may have a minor death wish, but it was worth it. The massive Ottoman mansion was rotting and collapsing. It had the dignity of abandoned places left to decay with time. After walking around the structure and taking a few photos in the absolute silence of the place I walked back across the field, crawled under the barbed wire fence, and continued along the hiking path.

Today I am reflecting on land mines. The late Princess Diana had a personal crusade against their use, and it was not some pet celebrity cause for her. They are a truly barbaric instrument of war. Also, land mines are the defensive tool of cowards. If you cannot hold a piece of territory under your own firepower and strategy then you ought to admit your loss and retreat. Bombing entire areas to bits is one thing. Ruining a land for future generations and killing children (or idiotic young hikers) decades later is another. Along with the nuclear bomb and its radiation poisoning people for years to come, the land mine represents the apex of our own inhumanity in war. They express our cruelty and disdain for future generations in times of conflict.

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