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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 May, 2005, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
Migrants risking Greek minefields
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Athens

Guma Nhdikumana
Guma Nhdikumana lost his leg after trying to cross a minefield
In the far north-eastern corner of Greece, along the sensitive border with Turkey, lie the killing fields of the European Union.

It is not known exactly how many people have died or been maimed in this region since the Greek army planted thousands of landmines 30 years ago.

But what is known is that the victims are not the invading Turkish troops that Greece once feared.

Instead, they are some of the world's most desperate - asylum-seekers and economic migrants from Africa, the Middle-East and Asia in search of protection or a better life in the EU.

Thirty-three-year-old Guma Nhdikumana, an asylum-seeker from Burundi, is one of many who have made the perilous crossing of the River Evros which marks the border.

He and two African friends paid Turkish smugglers $450 (347 euros or 236) to guide them to the crossing-point where they were told to turn left for Greece or right for Bulgaria once they reached the other side of the river.

It was a bleak winter's night.

"I didn't think there would be minefields in Greece, which is part of the EU," he says. "We didn't see any warnings because it was raining and foggy, so we just jumped over the fence."

One of his friends was killed instantly after treading on a landmine, the other died several hours later.

Civilian casualties

Guma himself was also injured by the blast and almost bled to death as he lay in the minefield for 14 hours waiting to be rescued by Greek troops. Doctors amputated his right leg shortly after he arrived at the local hospital.

"If Europe wants to stop illegal immigrants, this is not the way," says Theophilos Rosenberg, founder of the Greek branch of the aid agency Doctors of the World. "We cannot accept that here, in the heart of Europe, there are landmines that keep killing people every month... especially when 90% are innocent civilians."

I have acted to obtain resources for artificial limbs for the injured and to ensure their full recovery and psychological support
Vasilios Michaloliakos,
deputy defence minister

Campaigners are particularly incensed that the deaths and injuries in the minefields continue eight years after Greece first signed the Ottawa Convention, the international treaty which bans the use of anti-personnel mines.

They say more than 70 civilians have been killed and many others injured during this period despite significant improvements to the marking and fencing of the minefields.

Under increasing pressure on the issue, the Greek government finally ratified the Ottawa Convention in late 2003 which meant the treaty came into force in the country last year.

Since then, troops have started removing the anti-personnel mines from the border region. But it is an extremely slow process.

"The army has an eight-year plan which means the entire operation is expected to be completed by 2012," says army spokesman Major Vangelis Demetrios.

Government pledge

Although Greece is now complying with this section of the convention, officials monitoring progress say the government is failing to meet its obligations to provide long-term assistance for those already maimed in the minefields such as Guma Nhdikumana.

More than two years after losing his leg, Guma lives in a tiny bed-sit in the capital, Athens.

Map showing Greece - Turkey border
He says he has no passport, no money and depends on donations from Greek or foreign friends to pay for his artificial limbs and the parts that go with it.

"Sometimes I feel it would be better to die than to live like this."

Other victims have been found living rough on the streets of Athens. Embarrassed by this, the Greek government says it has had a change of heart.

"There was a gap which has now been covered," says Deputy Defence Minister Vasilios Michaloliakos. "I have acted to obtain resources for artificial limbs for the injured and to ensure their full recovery and psychological support. Our support for these unlucky people must be total."

But Guma says nothing has changed for him so far. He believes "it's just talk".


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