‘How can I leave? I have no legs’ – a Greek campaign for mine survivors

January 20, 2005 — Comment

Written by Louisa O’Brien

At least sixty overland would-be migrants to Europe have lost their lives to the landmines on Greece’s borders. A campaigner against the mines writes of one small victory in the long struggle for the rights of maimed mine survivors.

As representative of a Greek campaign of the Nobel Peace Prize award-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), I have long been lobbying for the more humane treatment of the survivors of the minefields along the Evros border with Turkey.

The Ottawa treaty

The ICBL – along with many governments and international bodies – initiated the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, and on their Destruction. Greece signed the Convention on its inauguration in Ottawa in 1997 and ratified it in September 2003. The Treaty came into operation in April 2004.

In the meantime, Greece had long been de-mining its borders with Bulgaria and the Grammos and Vitsi mountain area and, as soon as the papers for ratification were deposited with the UN in 2003, started to remove the anti-personnel mines along the Evros border. Greece has ten years to complete their removal. On the initial signing of the Treaty in 1997, Greece erected fencing around the Evros minefields, along with phosphorescent warning signs. Although there is no central register of mine victims it is believed that the fencing and signs drastically reduced the number of accidents in the area.

However, as we all know from press reports, accidents keep occurring – people keep dying and being injured on the Evros minefields. It is estimated that over sixty people have been killed and around the same number seriously wounded since 1999. Although Greece has been mostly in compliance with the Ottawa Treaty, there has been very little focus on one section, Article 6, paragraph 3: ‘Each State Party in a position to do so shall provide assistance for the care and rehabilitation and social and economic reintegration of mine victims…’

Mine accident survivors

Mine survivors receive primary medical care from the two major hospitals in the area, Didymoteichon and Alexandroupolis. But nothing else. Their status is a major problem as they are either asylum seekers or ‘illegal immigrants’ – one young survivor hospitalised for eleven months in Alexandroupolis, having lost both his legs and the use of his right arm, was handed deportation orders in his hospital bed. His response was ‘How can I leave? I have no legs…’

Thus we have a small number of mine accident survivors in Greece who are very vulnerable. There is no ‘care, rehabilitation or social and economic reintegration’ after they leave hospital, no prosthetic limbs, no psychological counselling for their trauma, no way to earn a living and their legal status is precarious.

Thank God for the warm hearts of most Greek citizens, for the doctors and nurses in the North who find the money personally for prosthetic limbs. Thank God for groups and individuals around the country who raise money to help in any way they can.

However, there is clearly a state obligation in the Treaty – both signed and ratified by Greece – and this is what I have been trying to promote and to tell the government through contacts at ministries, talks to embassies, calls, emails and faxes. Ministry representatives were invited to meetings arranged by sympathetic embassies but did not attend. By the time of the Nairobi Summit, in November 2004, the first review of the Ottawa Treaty, I felt that I had failed and was very angry and frustrated.

The Greek delegation

Members of ICBL arrived the weekend before the Summit took place at the UN Headquarters in Nairobi, so I missed the phone call made from the Ministry of Defence to my house in Aigina, just before the Greek delegation left for Kenya. As I waited in Nairobi for the Greek delegation to arrive, I was curious to see who would represent Greece and not very positive about any possible outcome. How wrong I was! The Greek delegation from the Ministry of Defence was accompanied by Ambassador Kokonas, soon to be the new Ambassador to Kenya, and was headed by the Deputy Minister of Defence and Member of Parliament for Aigina (Piraeus A and Islands) Dr Vassilis Mihaliolakos.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

I was invited to a reception held by the Greek embassy, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Nairobi, to meet Mr. Mihaliolakos. I was sure it was just going to be a handshake and a few polite words – but I was wrong again. Mihaloliakos and his entourage were interested and encouraging and I understood there was going to be an announcement in his speech which would please me. I had the chance to explain to the Minister my position and what the mine survivors need, as well as the Treaty obligations, which of course he was aware of.

The speech

The relevant parts of Mihaliolakos’ speech were:

  • ‘At the national level and until all antipersonnel mines are cleared from our northeastern border, Greece will continue to provide full medical care to illegal immigrants wounded by them.’
  • ‘Moreover, my country looks favourably into the possibility of covering the expenses of prostheses and relevant prostheses training for those innocent and unsuspecting people in search of a better future who are maimed by landmines…’

Immediately after his speech, members of the Board of ICBL stepped forward to greet and congratulate the Minister on this first acknowledgement of Greece’s responsibilities to its mine survivors.

Although this is a start, a real light at the end of the tunnel, I believe that the Greek delegation came to understand that when the Treaty says ‘care, rehabilitation or social and economic reintegration’, it means much more than paying for prostheses. And I also believe that it is very fortunate that Mr Mihaloliakos is a doctor and therefore has more awareness and sensitivity than the average layman.

The outcome

Well, will there be an outcome? Will all this be forgotten on return to everyday life in Athens? Can I expect the ministers to keep their word, or to remember? Ambassador Kokonas has already invited me to a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and there are hopes that very soon there will be a ministerial meeting on the subject.

How strange life is, that I should travel to Kenya, on the south-eastern coast of Africa to meet the member of parliament for Aigina and that this meeting, along with that with Ambassador Kokonas, could be the turning point for the fate of the fifteen or so land mine survivors here, God willing.

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The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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