Landmines destroy immigrants lives in Greece

world | Dec 13, 2007 | By Kathy Tzilivakis

It took only one step to change their life forever.

Guma Nhdikumana from war-torn Burundi and Redouane Kharbouche from Morocco, where unemployment is rife and the future bleak, embarked on a harrowing odyssey in pursuit of the European dream.

Little did they know that their treacherous voyage would end in tragedy.

In March 2002, Kharbouche crossed the Evros River from neighbouring Turkey and found himself walking through a minefield. One year later, Nhdikumana took the same ill-fated path.

Today, the two men are friends; united in their personal struggle to piece together their shattered lives.

Nhdikumana, 35, and 28-year-old Kharbouche live with the constant reminder of what happened on the night they touched Greek territory and of how close they came to death.

Nhdikumana lost his right leg in a landmine explosion. Kharbouche lost both his legs and the use of his right arm.

"I didn't think that there would be landmines in Greece - an EU country," Nhdikumana told the Athens News after a conference organised in Athens on December 3 to mark the 10th anniversary of the International Mine Ban Treaty, or Ottawa Treaty. "We didn't see them. I was with two others. I was the only one who survived... I lay helpless out in the cold for 14 hours before I was found by two soldiers."

Nhdikumana was rushed to the nearby Didimoticho General Hospital where doctors treated his wounds and amputated his leg. "I was being guarded by police day and night to make sure that I wouldn't run away," he says. "I still can't understand where they thought I was going to go without my legs."

The Greek state's coldness and apathy described by Nhdikumana is also expressed by Kharbouche.

"I was still lying in the hospital when they issued me deportation orders," he said. "I lived in Greece illegally until I got a residence permit [earlier this year]."

Kharbouche's one-year-duration residence permit expires in 2008. He worries about being deported.

"I'm worried I may not be able to renew it if I don't find a steady job with IKA [social insurance]," said Kharbouche. "I am looking for work as a computer programmer, but it's too difficult. No one wants to hire me."

Of the two, Nhdikumana is the luckiest. He was the first immigrant landmine victim to secure political asylum as a refugee, as well as a tiny disability pension (several hundred euros every other month).

Years of operations and countless trips to the doctors have worn down the two men, but they are determined to regain remnants of their old life. They long to put in a day's work and not have to rely on charity to live.


Where's the state?


In 2004, the government promised to cover the cost of prosthetics, which need to be replaced every couple of years, and provide psychological support for landmine survivors.

The then deputy defence minister, Vasilis Mihaloliakos, had told an international summit in Kenya that survivor assistance would include artificial limbs for amputees and training in how to use them. He also promised that would-be immigrants and asylum-seekers who are the victims of landmine explosions would no longer face deportation.

Mine survivors in Greece receive emergency medical care in hospitals, but nothing else, according to Louisa O'Brien, the local representative of the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

"Some things have changed," she said. "Hospitals no longer have to raise money for the prosthetics. These are now paid for by the health ministry. Also, I believe that people are no longer being issued deportation orders from the hospital. Further on from tha

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