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Medill students report on U.S. landmine legacy

Investigation sheds new light on $2.3 billion U.S. mine clearance and victim assistance effort.

January 5, 2015

Despite a 20-year cleanup effort, the explosive remnants of war left behind by the United States after sustained military campaigns around the world continue to kill and maim thousands of people in Cambodia, Iraq and other countries, according to a three-month investigation led by a reporting team from Medill.

The U.S. has used landmines, cluster bombs and other lethal conventional munitions during numerous wars and other conflicts around the world, and sold or gave them to dozens of other nations.

But despite a $2.3 billion U.S. effort to clear unexploded ordnance, assist victims and wipe out aging munitions stockpiles that dates back to 1993, civilians are still dying and the “deadly debris” is inflicting incalculable damage on communities, regions and entire countries, the investigation found.

The team of eight graduate student reporters worked extensively in Washington, D.C. as part of the annual installment of the Medill National Security Reporting Project. They also reported from remote outposts in Mozambique and Cambodia, an epicenter of the Cold War in Ukraine, a still-active conflict zone in Kurdistan, Iraq and neighboring Jordan and from the United Nations in New York.

Though the U.S. is a world leader in the cleanup effort and has had some major successes, critics say its efforts are not enough, the reporters found.

The project, titled “Deadly Debris: The U.S. Legacy of Unexploded Remnants of War,” is being published on a website created by the reporting team. It is also being published by GlobalPost, the award-winning digital journalism site with a primary focus on world news coverage.

The findings are based on interviews with dozens of experts, victims and government officials, field reporting on four continents and a Medill analysis of dozens of reports and studies.

“Deadly Debris” is a comprehensive series of print, video and interactive stories. As part of its partnership with Medill, GlobalPost is also sharing the project with its many clients for publication.

“The students have performed a huge public service by shining a bright light on this important and timely topic,” said Josh Meyer, project leader and director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, which awarded scholarships for the Washington-based reporting effort.

The scholarships and the initiative itself are funded through a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
“This project is accountability journalism of the highest order, and we’re grateful to GlobalPost for being so enthusiastically supportive of our work, and for publishing our findings to a worldwide audience,” Meyer added.

The student team was comprised of project manager Christopher Walljasper, who designed the website and reported along with Carolyn Freundlich, Alexandra Hines, Eliza Larson, Rachel Menitoff, Melanie Saltzman, Matthew Schehl and Tammy Thueringer.

They were assisted by Meyer, Medill Visiting Professor Matt Mansfield, interactive adjunct and Medill graduate Michelle Minkoff and photo/video adjunct Allison Shelley.

"It's an honor for GlobalPost to help spread to our audience the journalism of Medill and Northwestern,” said GlobalPost Editor Tom Mucha. “As a global news organization we're always grateful for those who put in the hard work to produce a project of this editorial importance, scope and scale."

“Deadly Debris” is the fifth in a series of annual investigative reporting efforts that are part of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative. The initiative was established in January 2009 to equip journalists with the knowledge and skills necessary to report accurately and innovatively on issues related to defense, security and civil liberties and to do so across all digital platforms.

Previous projects have focused on the troubled U.S. global food aid program, the national security implications of U.S. energy policy and the challenges faced by National Guard and Reserve members returning home from a decade of war. The first project, on the national security implications of climate change, won a national award from the Online News Association.

For more information visit deadlydebris.org.