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All Clear in Kinmen 1: Deminers, natives mark removal of mines

2013/12/31 16:29:51

By Elaine Hou, CNA staff reporter

Following years of efforts by Taiwan's military and private companies to remove tens of thousands of landmines sown on outlying islands decades ago to thwart invading Chinese forces, Kinmen has now made a significant step forward to becoming landmine-free.

Since 2007, the Army Demining Division in Kinmen has taken over the bulk of the work from foreign experts.

It has worked along with demining experts from Singapore and the United States to clear the mines in Kinmen, located a mere kilometers from the coast of China, where most mines were deployed in coastal areas.

Lt. Col. Shi Lu-kuang, deputy head of the division, directed CNA to statistics showing that some 95,800 landmines and unexploded ordnance have been cleared from islands in Kinmen County.

"Our major demining work was completed by June," said Shi, who joined a military mine clearing taskforce formed on Kinmen in 2006 before becoming a member of the Demining Division.

Even so, regular sweeps by military professionals will continue to check areas marked as mine-clear and visit areas where there are still concerns of hidden unexploded ordnance.

Fewer and fewer mines have been found in recent years, much to the benefit of local residents, but having accomplished their mission means something of a bittersweet farewell for the division members who dedicated themselves to clearing out the explosives.

"We deminers are becoming jobless," Shi joked.

Some 20 deminers will remain in Kinmen when the Demining Division is disbanded in April 2014, while the other 50 or so will return to Taiwan's main island to assume other duties, he said.

Those staying behind will have more work to do, as decades of changes in tidal patterns and the coastline mean that undiscovered mines could drift far from where they were originally planted.

Professionals have used advanced equipment to search for and remove every mine they could, but Shi cautioned that there is always a possibility, however low, that some went without detection.

The removal of most of the mines has, meanwhile, allowed Kinmen to develop recreational activities on its once war-torn beaches, though the remaining personnel will continue to ensure public safety.

Before an annual swimming contest between Kinmen's islet of Lieyu and the Chinese city of Xiamen, for example, deminers conduct checks on the beach to ensure safety for swimmers, Shi said.

Civilians, restricted for many years from going to the military-controlled beaches out of national and personal security concerns, are finally able to enjoy a dip.

"We couldn't have almost any beach activities," said Wu Chia-jung, 30, of his youth.

"The next generation will be able to (grow up) having fun at the beaches" thanks to the mine clearing, he said.

Back in June, about 1,000 locals and international anti-mine advocates hiked over what was literally once a minefield to celebrate the newly created "landmine-free homeland."

Among the advocates was Sylvie Brigot, executive director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, who lauded Taiwan's efforts and progress in removing the explosives. Also taking part in the event were Taiwanese people maimed by landmines more than five decades ago.

Kinmen and Matsu used to have extensive minefields along their coastlines, planted by the military in the 1950s and 1960s when tensions were still high between warring Taiwan and China.

The deployment of mines on the frontline islands was an effective defense, as there were not enough troops stationed on the islands to stave off a Chinese invasion, said officials at the Kinmen Defense Command.

When tension in the Taiwan Strait began to ease, the military began drafting plans to clear the mines in the 1990s, Shi said.

Today, more than 123,400 landmines and unexploded ordnance have been removed from Kinmen and Matsu over the past years, official statistics show.

Asked whether the military will share its demining experience with other countries, Shi said he is "optimistic about it."

But the most important thing is that "we will try to maintain our own demining capability," he said.

ENDITEM/J/WH

Other "All Clear in Kinmen" reports:
Deminers play down dangers of job
Bitter memories become attractions