Explosive Landscapes

Walls are but the most visible parts of militarized borders.

The Berlin Wall did not fall; it was demolished, first by hammer-wielding locals, then by state bulldozers, which hauled off the concrete remains. From a distance, it seems reunification happened suddenly. Newsreels from late 1989 show scenes festive, raucous even: young people dancing atop the graffitied barrier; David Hasselhoff singing “I’ve been looking for freedom” in a black leather jacket festooned with flashing lights; East Germans flocking westward on foot or in their tiny “Trabi” cars, which would soon be left abandoned on West German roadsides. Today, tour groups in Berlin are told that the Berlin Wall opened unexpectedly, and because of a mistake by a hapless East German bureaucrat. They are also told that at least 139 people died trying to breach the wall, which was really two walls with dog runs, metal spikes, and armed guards between them. How could the 155-kilometer Berlin Wall and the even deadlier landmine-ridden 1393-kilometer Inner German Border—once among the most fortified barriers in the world—have been so rapidly dismantled?

The narrative of “the fall” of the Berlin Wall belies the tedious work of removing militarized borders. Concrete, brick, and iron are but the most visible parts of such security systems. Landmines, tripwires, grenades, and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) shape postwar landscapes decades after conflicts are declared over and done. They create invisible borders, remnants of conflicts past, and enduring portents of a deadly future.

Landmines, tripwires, grenades, and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) shape postwar landscapes decades after conflicts are declared over and done.

In the heart of Cold War Europe, the German Interior Border stretched from the Baltic Sea to what was then Czechoslovakia and, over an 18-year period, was fortified by East Germany with an estimated 1.3 million antipersonnel mines. Efforts to remove the weaponry began in the mid-1980s, after East Germany came under criticism from the international community for its brutal Splittermine: tripwire-activated spring-guns primed to maim or kill would-be defectors. In 1984, the East German government agreed to remove the devices in exchange for a substantial loan from West Germany. However, the work of clearing mines in Germany continued well into the 1990s, years after reunification. Today, some 33,000 East German antipersonnel mines remain unaccounted for, presumably swept away by soil and water, carried off by foxes, or activated by wildlife.

In Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos (2019), Leah Zani argues for approaching what David Henig (2012) dubs “military waste” as a form of area studies that draws attention to “the geographic and cultural formations” war zones create. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we turn an anthropological eye toward how the Cold War’s explosive legacies shape contemporary landscapes. As Jason De León observes of the Sonoran Desert in The Land of Open Graves (2015), entire topographies can be militarized. But with landmines the most dangerous terrain may not appear fatal. In fact, landmines are often placed precisely where one would least expect them—near a creek, under an inviting tree, on a mountain leading to a sacred site.

Holy borders in Cambodia

To reach Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Temple, you take a military jeep up a steep slope. As you ascend, the food and drinks you have brought with you slide backward past your feet. The refreshments are not for you, but a customary kindness for the soldiers who guard the temple, located at a border militarized since the late twentieth century. The conflict that led to the border closure has long since ended, but its traces, and traces of earlier conflicts, remain embedded in the landscape—a deadly palimpsest.

Preah Vihear sits amid the K5 belt, a vast stretch of landmines that enforce the border between contemporary Cambodia and Thailand. At 700 kilometers long and 500 meters wide, with about 3,000 mines per square kilometer, it is the most densely mine-contaminated place in the world.

A photograph of a green field with a tree trunk growing out of it. In front of the tree, there is a red sign with a drawing of skull and crossbones and text reading "Danger!! Mines!!"
Cambodian Mine Action Center minefield warning in Battambang province, 2015. Darcie DeAngelo

A long stone pathway takes you up the mountain. Trail lines guide your eyes to the silhouettes of temple tops. The plateau comprises a complex of stone buildings sculpted with giant carvings of flowers and gates etched with a story of gods. Splotches of white and chartreuse lichen emboss stone details. The temple has clean, symmetrical lines with rectangular windows and halls. Wind and cloud mists flow through its entrances, but your movements are limited. Beyond the path you’ll see a fallen sign with skulls and crossbones reading, “Danger!! Mines!!”

Most landmines in Cambodia were laid in the 1980s during the Vietnamese takeover of the country, which came after the defeat of Pol Pot’s Maoist-communist Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian-Vietnamese War (1979–1989). Other munitions are explosive relics of the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call “the American War”), when the United States dropped bombs on communist forces. These conflicts are entangled: the US intrusion in Vietnam in the 1960s led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, a genocidal regime responsible for murdering millions of Cambodians in the 1970s. Although Vietnam and Cambodia were initially united, the two communist regimes soon turned against each other, leaving China to mediate. The result was the K5 belt, an invisible wall preventing Khmer Rouge troops from returning to Cambodia via Thailand.

Landmines, which have a lifespan of 100 years, persist longer than their conflicts. They outlive their original uses; they take on different meanings. Today, landmines at Preah Vihear can prevent Thai access to the temple complex and have become part of a border dispute that developed after they were laid. This series of events, and the resultant layers and possibilities of unexploded ordnance, remind us that conflicts do not start and end, but rather nest and beget each other. Unlike concrete walls, landmines cannot be torn down but must be detected and detonated, piece by piece.

Lethal leftovers in Ukraine

Minefields do not hold steady shapes. The durability of landmines and other explosive devices is often matched only by their portability. In her study of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, Eleana Kim (2016) describes how her interlocutors would find aging plastic “toe popper” antipersonnel mines swimming between rice paddies. Explosives, once planted in the landscape, could become “rogue infrastructure” swept away by rain, erosion, or wildlife, reshaping the ways people lived in and used their environment, changing which areas the mines denied. Aging landmines can also be moved by human hands. Like other weapons—guns, grenades, missiles—landmines can be stored during peacetime and then transferred elsewhere when conflict erupts. They can be torn out of the ground, their parts disassembled and jerry-rigged into new explosive configurations. Once the machinery for a militarized border has been produced, a militarized border is always possible.

In the far east of Ukraine, a small pocket of land extends like a crooked finger into Russia. A road bisects the finger, and along that road is a village, Krasna Talivka, once home to a large garden seed farm. Should you go there, adults will recount summers spent scooping the flesh from overripe watermelons so the seeds could be replanted across the Soviet Union. They will recall the pain of losing the state farm during privatization, and how, after Ukrainian independence, they made ends meet as cross-border traders, selling “contraband” (shampoo, laundry detergent, shoes) from Russia in the regional center of Stanytsia Luhanska and the big city of Luhansk.

A photograph of a vast field and blue sky. A sign in the field reads "MIHИ 500.""
Minefield in Kyiv-controlled Donetsk region, Ukraine, May 2017. Tetiana Bulakh

After the start of the War in Donbas (2014–present) and the shelling of the local border guard by Russian helicopters, the Ukrainian military planted Soviet-era anti-tank mines in fields at both ends of Krasna Talivka and along the regional highway. A pro-Ukrainian militia set up camp in a nearby forest, stringing trees with tripwires and other booby-traps made from spare parts, impeding villagers seeking firewood or mushrooms. Bus services ceased. Krasna Talivka, once Soviet heartland, is now cut off from both Russia and Ukraine: Russia is accessible only via another border crossing, hours away; Luhansk is deep in separatist territory; and Stanytsia Luhanska sits at the “line of contact” between government and separatist forces, surrounded by landmines, unexploded shells, and other hazards left by both sides. Every day, thousands of people, mostly seniors living in separatist-controlled territory, cross a badly damaged bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska to collect their Ukrainian pensions. Last winter, 18 people dropped dead in the queue. Substantial repairs have recently begun, but cannot be completed until all combatants fully disengage and clear the area of UXOs.

Krasna Talivka was spared much of the violence that plagued other parts of Ukraine and, as this article goes to press, the fields in the border-area have been certified mine-free and returned to farmers. Still, military waste continues to impact daily life there and in surrounding communities. As work in agriculture and trading evaporated, dozens of locals went to work in humanitarian mine clearance, usually for the British-American HALO Trust. The salary is good by area standards but the labor is physically and mentally taxing. “De-miners” spend hours on their hands and knees, hand-cutting vegetation that has overgrown pastures and fields and sweeping for explosives they mark and map for the military’s detonation team. Such technical surveys are but one step in a politically charged and bureaucratically complicated mine clearance process.

Walls that won’t fall

Mine clearance experts estimate that a single landmine costs between 3 and 30 US dollars to install and 10 times that amount to remove. But the barriers to removing mines are not only financial. In Ukraine, Cambodia, and many other UXO-affected countries, mine clearance requires armed forces, humanitarian de-mining organizations, and locals to navigate multiple and conflicting interests. To some, landmines offer protection from would-be invaders. To others, landmines create economic distress, separate families, and impose unacceptable risk upon primarily non-combatant populations, especially children.

Landmines are often placed precisely where one would least expect them—near a creek, under an inviting tree, on a mountain leading to a sacred site.

The end of a conflict does not necessarily make clearance easier. Minefields shift—both physically, as land and water move, and semiotically, as they come to enforce borders or deny territory for different reasons than before. Cambodia’s K5 belt, built to keep out the Khmer Rouge, now lends itself to enforced borders. In Ukraine, the War in Donbas increasingly resembles a frozen conflict. As UXO is cleared in some areas, that which is left in place hardens the “de-facto border” (Bulakh 2018). There is nothing stopping Cambodia or Ukraine, both signatories to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty, from maintaining anti-tank mines, which the convention does not prohibit. Indeed, these frying-pan sized contraptions are deployed in many contemporary conflicts. They will not explode when stepped on, but can and have torn apart tractors, buses, and family cars that unwittingly cross their path, victims of walls they never knew were there.

As we look back on the 30 years since the Cold War was declared over, we would do well to remember that the Berlin Wall was more than a concrete barrier. The narrative of the “fall of the wall” erases years of disarmament along the Inner German Border and it blinds us to the violence that landmines, Cold War-era and otherwise, have prolonged elsewhere. Dismantling militarized borders is a decades-long process—when it happens at all. A militarized wall never plans for peacetime; if one is built, how can we?

Darcie DeAngelo is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Holy Cross. Her current book project, part of University of California Press’s Atelier series 2019 workshop, is Beloved Technologies: On Bombs and Rats in a Cambodian Minefield.

Deborah A. Jones is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. She is preparing a book manuscript, Words to Sow: Language and Violence in Ukraine.

Cite as: DeAngelo, Darcie, and Deborah A. Jones. 2019. “Explosive Landscapes.” Anthropology News website, November 15, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1312

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