Every year, more than 26,000 people — mostly civilians — die or are injured by landmines buried around the world. Two Taiwanese victims of landmines — Lee Hsi-sheng (李錫勝) and Chen Chang Li-yu (陳張麗玉) — have spent the better part of their lives dedicated to the anti-landmine campaign.
Lee, 74, said he was 19 when he stepped on a mine and lost his left leg.
“I was in peak physical condition then and was a member of a water sports team,” Lee said, adding that he could swim 10km without any problem.
However, when the accident occurred in June 1958, “I felt like I was deprived of my youth,” he said.
Lee said he was returning from the family’s peanut field near Guningtou (古寧頭) on the outlying island of Kinmen when he stepped on a mine, which had been buried there as defense against possible invasion by Chinese Communist troops.
“I remember that I was even able to take another step or two after the blast before I fell down,” Lee said.
The farmers working nearby fled in panic and he saw his mother jumping up and down in distress.
“I told her to stop jumping up and down, or she might step on one too and that would be the end of both of us,” Lee said.
His mother and several farmers carried him to the nearby army barracks, which then sent him to a military hospital, where Lee’s left leg was amputated to save his life.
Shortly after the incident, the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958 erupted, with Chinese forces bombarding Kinmen on Aug. 23. Lee, who was hiding in a bomb shelter, was wounded by shrapnel and sent to Taipei Veterans General Hospital for treatment.
He said that was where he got his prosthetic limb.
Chen Chang, another Kinmen resident, said she was 17 when a landmine blew off her right leg.
Recounting the incident, Chen Chang said she used to pick beach evening primroses (Oenothera drummondii) along the coast of Cingyu (青嶼) near their home in Cingsha Township (青沙), and take them home to dry for use as fuel.
In June 1958, she and three other young women entered a restricted landmine area to pick flowers and accidentally stepped on a mine.
Despite the pain, Chen Chang said she was able to crawl out of the dangerous area. Soldiers who had come running to help sent her to a military hospital, where her right leg was amputated from the knee down.
“There was a young soldier who often came to see me, and even promised to marry me,” Chen Chang said.
However, her father refused, afraid that she might be discriminated against on the island of Taiwan because of her injuries. He arranged for her marriage to another Kinmen resident.
Decades have passed since the accidents, and Lee and Chen Chang have been active proponents of the anti-landmine movement.
They often speak at forums at home and abroad, sharing their experience and campaigning for the removal of landmines.
Due in part to their efforts and the changing times — which activists felt had rendered the mines on Kinmen and Matsu an anachronism — the Taiwanese government passed the Act Regulating Deadly Mines (殺傷力地雷管制條例) in June 2006 and declared that all landmines within the nation’s borders should be removed within seven years.
Ministry of National Defense statistics showed that there were about 100,000 mines in 308 areas — measuring a total of 3.9 million square meters — on Kinmen and Matsu. At the end of last year, the ministry said that through the combined efforts of its engineers and outsourced companies, all 308 areas had been cleared of mines.
The ministry said it would keep the majority of its minesweeping forces at the army’s Engineer School on Kinmen and Matsu to teach others how to defuse mines in case they are needed in the future.