SEATTLE — Marianne Holtz was on a mission of mercy in Africa when a land mine planted in a pothole on a well-traveled road in eastern Zaire blew up her car.
The international relief worker has no memory of the blast last Oct. 29. She woke up in Kenya's Nairobi Hospital to find her breathing aided by a machine, her jaw wired up and her legs amputated below the knees.
"There was no bump in the blanket where my feet should have been," she said in an interview at Harborview Medical Center here, where she is convalescing.
"It was at that point I realized something terrible had happened," said Holtz, a 56-year-old public-health nurse who lived in Seattle for 15 years before moving to McCall, Idaho, in 1990.
An associate, David Lillie, who was driving the vehicle, also was hurt in the explosion.
He and Holtz are among the 26,000 people maimed or killed each year by land mines, according to the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines.
Last December, a U.S. military vehicle on reconnaissance in Bosnia struck a snow-covered mine. The blast wounded a GI, the first casualty of the American peacekeeping mission. An estimated 3 million to 6 million mines litter the countryside, posing a major threat to troops in the former Yugoslav federation.
Land mines have always been a major cause of wartime casualties, and the leftovers can pose hazards long after the fighting stops.
Mines remain the leading cause of death and injury in Kuwait five years after the Persian Gulf War. In Cambodia, which has endured three wars in the last 25 years, one in every 236 people is an amputee.
There are an estimated 110 million land mines scattered about the landscape in 64 countries worldwide. The United Nations estimates the cost of clearing a single land mine at as much as $1,000.
Holtz hopes the U.S. military presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina will draw attention to land mines and the dangers they pose for noncombatants.
"Children run across these things," she said. "They're just horrible."
Holtz was sent last August to Goma, Zaire, by the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee, a nonprofit organization that provides health care and self-help training for refugees.
It was the latest in a series of her assignments in Africa since her four children grew up. Previous tours of duty had taken her to Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda.
"We always knew the danger was there," she said.
But the risks seemed somewhat diminished in Zaire, which was not at war and had become a destination for 1 million Rwandan refugees. And relief workers take precautions to avoid antipersonnel mines--driving only on paved, well traveled roads, for example.
Holtz and Lillie, of Wauwatosa, Wis., were on a main road 15 miles north of Goma. It was a road they traveled often.
But on that October day, it exploded. The blast crumpled the car. Lillie's collarbone was broken, and he was cut and bruised.
Both Holtz's legs were severed and part of her face was torn up. She also broke her jaw, five ribs and three vertebrae.
"My legs are probably buried with the refugees there in one of the mass graves," she said.
Holtz doesn't expect the culprits will be found, and she doesn't believe whoever planted the mine was targeting relief personnel.
Many Zairians are envious of conditions at the Goma-area camps housing 700,000 Rwandan refugees--the camps have clean water and other amenities--and there have been clashes involving local tribes, Zairian soldiers and refugees. In addition, local authorities have accused refugee members of Rwanda's Tutsi clan of planting land mines around camps targeting rival Hutus.
Zaire wants the refugees to go back to Rwanda, but many Hutus are afraid of reprisals for the recent past, when an estimated 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.
Today, worlds away, Holtz is learning to walk on prosthetic legs. She struggles to negotiate the parallel bars in the hospital gym, where the fourth-floor windows frame a lovely view of Mt. Rainier.
The panorama is but a brief distraction. The physical therapy is so punishing, she must take pain medication before she begins.
Holtz, who was divorced years ago, anticipates moving into an apartment near Harborview and perhaps one day returning to work.
"It's unfortunate that civilians, including Americans from time to time, children and ordinary people are being hurt with a great deal of frequency and being killed, and we don't even pay attention," she said.