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Is Africa Hollywood's playground?

Opinion: Landmines weren't an issue until Princess Diana walked in a minefield.

Princess Diana Angola Landmine Africa
Diana, Princess of Wales, talks with landmine victims in Angola at an orthopedic center outside Luanda, Jan. 14, 1997. Angola is one of the world's most heavily-mined countries. (Jose Manuel Ribeiro/Reuters)

BOSTON — At first we made fun of Princess Diana.

When she came to Zimbabwe in 1993, it was her first international visit since her separation from Prince Charles. The cynical view of the press was that Diana was desperately trying to keep her role as princess alive by making such celebrity visits.

Our jaundiced view melted when we saw her visit a grimy hospital where she took into her arms and hugged a young child dying of AIDS. She held hands with another, for a period of time that lasted much longer than a photo opportunity.

No one in Zimbabwe had broken down the stigma of AIDS as much as Diana’s empathy and close physical contact.

A journalist colleague worked for years to write articles about the campaign against anti-personnel landmines. I, too, reported on the issue, writing stories about African amputees caused by the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel landmines that remained hidden and deadly across wide swathes of territory, long after the conflicts ended. Our articles never got the kind of placement in the media that we felt they deserved.

Then Princess Diana went to Angola in January 1997. Iconic images of her walking through landmine areas and sitting with young amputees were on the front pages of every newspaper in the world and were beamed by every television network. She made an impassioned statement against anti-personnel landmines and urged all responsible governments to stop using them, producing them and selling them.

Single-handedly Diana made the anti-landmine campaign a hot topic.

Her views went against official British policy and top defense officials denounced Diana as a “loose cannon” and dismissed her as “ill-informed” on the issue of anti-personnel landmines. It was a standoff between the British defense ministry and the princess.

Diana won.

There was a groundswell of public opinion against any British involvement in the worldwide trade in anti-personnel landmines. Diana persisted in her campaign, visiting Bosnia in August to highlight the work of the Landmine Survivors Network.

Days later Diana died in a car crash.

Months later the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Diana’s work was credited with contributing to its success.

A year later Diana’s work was praised at the launch of the Ottawa Treaty, an international agreement to ban anti-personnel landmines.