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World fights land mines, but U.S. still on sidelines

Rahmatullah Merzayee was 11 years old, almost 12, when, walking home from school in Kabul, Afghanistan, one afternoon, he stepped on a land mine.

“After the explosion, I looked up and saw . . . I don’t know the exact words,” he said. “I saw a dark environment, a windy dark, like a breeze, all around me. When I touch my legs I felt nothing. I can’t explain in words.”

Merzayee, now 28, spoke to me over the phone from Mozambique, where he is attending an international conference on land mines, officially a mouthful: The Third Review Conference of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, running through Friday in Maputo, the nation’s capital.

The conference drew more than 1,000 representatives from nations around the world, and the news, surprisingly, is good for once: Since the signing of a global mine ban treaty in the late 1990s, production of mines has almost stopped, casualties have plummeted, and countries such as Mozambique that are riddled with land mines from past conflicts have made great strides in removing them, according to the International Committee to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its work.

One less cheerful point is that the United States, while pouring money into combating the harm caused by land mines, is still not among the 161 nations that signed the ban.

“The U.S. has two diplomats here, but we have nothing to report,” said Chris Walljasper, a Medill student who picked up his graduate degree — spelled correctly — on Saturday and got on a plane Sunday for Mozambique, where he’s preparing for the fall, when Northwestern’s National Security Reporting Fellowship program focuses on the issue of anti-personnel mines.

The old argument is that the U.S. needs land mines to stave off the North Koreans. But in a world of fast-deployment forces, that’s not a convincing reason, and military experts have claimed that mines constrict defense more than help. Their scant value must be weighed against the fact that mines are active for decades and deliver horrific injuries to civilians — half of victims are children — far more than they harm combatants.