Op-Ed: Landmines Are Hugely Destructive to People and Other Living Things

The director of critically acclaimed ‘The Eyes of Thailand’ focuses on maimed elephants and reveals the larger scope of a human tragedy.

Soraida Salwala and an elephant at thailand's Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) Elephant Hospital

Every year, between 4,000 to 5,000 people are killed or maimed by landmines. Approximately, 72 percent of the casualties are civilians, and 30 to 40 percent of those are children under the age of 15 years old. Considering there are still tens of millions of landmines in the ground in 78 countries, is it any wonder that 11 to 12 people are injured or killed each day?

And what about the landmine victims we don’t hear about, victims that literally have no voice of their own?

The Eyes of Thailand tells the true story of Thai humanitarian Soraida Salwala’s quest to build elephant-sized prostheses and help two elephant landmine survivors walk on their own four legs.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me reveal right now that I am the director of The Eyes of Thailand.

I accidentally became a landmine activist in 2007 when I wandered into the Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) Elephant Hospital. FAE is a 200-acre facility that has treated more than 3,500 Asian elephants for everything from eye infections and difficult pregnancies to gunshot wounds, broken legs and landmine accidents.

While I knew there were landmines in Southeast Asia that harmed people, I was emotionally unprepared to see Soraida and her staff treating two elephant landmine survivors.

Motala, now a 50-year-old Asian Elephant, stepped on a landmine in 1999 while she and her mahout (owner) were logging along the Thai-Myanmar border. Although the explosion shattered her front leg, she walked for three days to arrive at FAE’s Elephant Hospital.

The current insurgency in southern Thailand is actively using landmines, and landmines still remain on the Cambodian and Myanmar sides of its borders. More landmines go into the ground in Myanmar every day due to clashes between governmental and rebel forces.

Seeing the strength and will to survive in Motala’s eyes, Soraida refused to euthanize her and embarked on a ten-year journey to help Motala walk again on her own power. Unfortunately, news of Motala’s injury did not curb elephant landmine accidents. In 2006, Mosha stepped on a landmine when she was seven months old. Her injuries healed faster than Motala’s, and in June 2008, Dr. Therdchai (FAE’s head veterinarian) and the Prostheses Foundation built an elephant-sized prosthesis that helped Mosha walk again.In 2009, I returned to FAE to film the Prostheses Foundation’s attempt to build the world’s largest prosthesis for Motala. It was a nerve-wracking experience. The Prostheses Foundation was uncertain it could build a prosthesis large enough to withstand the weight of a full-grown Asian elephant; and Soraida did not know whether Motala would accept the device.

In the end, Motala took her first steps on her prosthesis on the ten-year anniversary of her landmine accident, and I left thinking the film had an ending.

However, in 2010, two new elephants stepped on landmines; so I went back to film an epilogue that featured the new victims.

That trip gave me an opportunity to travel to Vientiane, Laos, to interview landmine experts who were attending the first Cluster Munitions Convention.
There, I learned that Thailand had signed the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997. Even though it has never produced or exported antipersonnel landmines, it did import them to use along its borders with Cambodia and Myanmar during previous conflicts. In accordance with the Mine Ban Treaty, the Thai government states it destroyed its stockpiled mines in April 2003. The only mines it retains are for training purposes.

Nonetheless, the current insurgency in southern Thailand is actively using landmines, and landmines still remain on the Cambodian and Myanmar sides of its borders. More landmines go into the ground in Myanmar every day due to clashes between governmental and rebel forces.

Since Soraida opened FAE in 1993, she knows of 90 elephants that have stepped on landmines along the Thai-Myanmar border. Of those, 15 made it to FAE, eight healed and were returned to their owners, four passed away, three still remain under FAE’s Elephant Hospital, and two are walking with prostheses.


Soraida Salwala and Windy Borman stand on the grounds of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital. (Photo: Copyright Eyes of Thailand LLC)

Soraida has accomplished all of this while suffering from multiple ailments, including heart conditions and lupus.

Since meeting Soraida, I have seen her go from walking with a cane to needing a walker; however, her health concerns come secondary to her elephants. In fact, I believe she shares a stronger bond with her patients precisely because she knows what it is like to suffer.

Sadly, Soraida’s illnesses kept her from traveling to the world premiere of The Eyes of Thailand at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April 2012, but in November, I fulfilled my promise of bringing the film to her in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

More than 100 attendees, including Thai dignitaries, interviewees from the film, and members of the Thai media, gathered for the screening.

I was uncharacteristically nervous: A Thai audience had never before seen the film—and I was going to sit next to Soraida. The one review I was most nervous about was Soriada’s. Would she like it? Would she approve of how we told her story?

I managed to look over at Soraida about five minutes into the screening. Once I saw she was smiling through her tears, I relaxed.

In the film, Soraida says, “Some people say we wasted our time to save just one life, but to me, no. It’s been ten years and every second of it has been so valuable.”

Until the remaining 35 countries sign the Mine Ban Treaty and we consistently fund landmine clearance around the world, we will continue to have human and non-human casualties.

In the meantime, it gives me hope to know that people like Soraida Salwala continue to treat the victims of these barbaric weapons, no matter what the cost.

(Narrated by Ashley Judd, the ten-time award-winning film is available on DVD February 26.)

Which landmine victims are more tragic: Humans or animals? Or is it equal? Make a case in COMMENTS.

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