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Land mines: The civil war's lethal legacy

Article - November 26, 2014

Four decades of conflict left Angola with the unenviable title of the most land-mined country in the world.  The government, aided by international organizations, has been working to remove this threat which, apart from having tragic consequences for individuals, has also been an obstacle to economic development.

Dozens of casualties were registered last year in Angola in a war that has no soldiers -- the battle the country’s past stubbornly insists on waging against its future. Long after the civil war that devastated the country from 1975 to 2002 came to an end, land mines continue to claim new victims – there were 89 confirmed in 2011. Meanwhile, government and international organizations work to remove this threat to life lying just below the soil the country needs to develop its agriculture, transportation and infrastructure.

Experts give a conservative figure of 10 million mines planted throughout the country during the civil war, or one for every two Angolans. Because anti-personnel mines are designed to wound and maim rather than kill the victim, it is tragically commonplace to see some of the country’s 70,000 or so amputees as just another component of the urban landscape.

In the aftermath of the conflict, Angolans have taken on primary responsibility for dealing with this situation. According to government figures, between 1996 and 2013,a total of 442,833 anti-personnel mines were cleared, 24,766 anti-tank mines neutralized and about 2.7 million explosive devices recovered. As of 2014, some 7,000 square kilometers of land had been cleared of mines.

The first attempts at de-mining took place between 1994 and 1998, during the lull in fighting between MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forces.  During that interval, the short-lived coalition government established the National Demining Institute (INAD), which continues to have primary responsibility for identifying and locating mine emplacements, as well as training and supervising brigades of sappers tasked with neutralizing them. The institute is also in charge of programs for educating people about the dangers of unexploded mines.

INAD is a linchpin component of a larger policy-making entity, the CNIDAH, or National Inter-sectorial Commission for Demining and Humanitarian Assistance, on which the Armed Forces and ministerial bodies are represented. CNIDAH sees to the strategic planning, mobilizes resources get the job done, and evaluates the outcome. Its broader remit also includes supervision of social reintegration and humanitarian assistance programs aimed at mine victims.

CNIDAH also coordinates with those foreign governments playing an essential role in helping Angola deal with its mine problem. Among the most generous is Japan, which granted nearly $600 million last year to finance clearing in Moxico -- the southeastern province that vies with neighboring Cuito Canavale as the country’s most mine-infested region.   

Women and children often the victims

One of the greater tragedies of the landmine saga is that the victims, more often than not, are women and children.

“Women and girls are disproportionately affected by landmines,” notes United Nations Development Program Administrator Helen Clark. “They have different needs when it comes to education about risks and different challenges when they or a family member is killed or injured.”

To bring that point home, the government sponsored a gala in 2008, in which contestants from each of the country’s 18 provinces vied for the title of “Miss Landmine Survivor” at Luanda’s trendiest nightspot.  The event’s motto was “Everyone has a right to be beautiful,” and a selection of photographs of the contestants later toured in Poland and Norway.

Additionally, at least 8,000 of the 70,000 amputees were children at the time that their limbs, sight or hearing were taken from them, victims of their own innocent curiosity about the objects deliberately planted near fresh water sources, shady groves and other soft targets with no military justification whatsoever.

As in some other countries, notably Zimbabwe and Mozambique, an undisclosed percentage of Angola’s mine-related casualties are self-inflicted. Throughout Africa, it is widely and wrongly believed that a substance called red mercury can be recovered from mines and other unexploded ordinance: terrorists are supposed to pay cash over the counter for it, because it’s used to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs or cover stealth aircraft with a paint that renders them invisible to radar. The only drawback is that red mercury doesn’t exist -- not in nuclear devices or anywhere else, but especially not in unexploded landmines.

International NGOs do their part

The presence of international NGOs and donor groups in Angola goes back to the parenthetical peace interval from 1994 to 1998. Foremost among them are the Mines Advisory Group (MAG: Britain) which lost one of its members in an explosion in Angola in 1997 -  the same year it was proclaimed co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Also active are MgM (Menschen gegen Minen/People against Mines: Germany) and the Scotland-based HALO Trust.

The latter organization owes much of its high public profile to Diana, Princess of Wales, whom HALO hosted on her 1997 visit to Angola. The media-savvy princess knew that photographs of her chatting with a victim or holding a recovered mine in her hands would be plastered on front pages all over the world, calling attention to Angolans’ plight, as indeed they did. Her visit also helped pave the way over some politically rough terrain towards Ottawa, where a treaty outlawing the manufacture, storage and use of anti-personnel mines came into force in 1999.

In August, 2013, it was Diana’s son, Prince Harry who arrived in Angola on a  four-day visit to confer with demining teams sponsored by the HALO Trust and reaffirm his family’s support for the cause that stirred his mother’s passionate concern. He was told about the landmines and other explosive devices that HALO experts have been locating and putting out of business at an average rate of 690 per month over the past five years. But many more are still out there; the five provinces where HALO operates contain 553 confirmed minefields.

Among the questions raised during Prince Harry’s visit was whether the governments responsible for this state of affairs be held accountable.   Part of the problem is that just about everyone was responsible: both of the principal Angolan factions in the civil war, along with their foreign sponsors -- the United States, Soviet Union, Cuba, Portugal, Zaire, China and South Africa -- but it was Cuban occupation forces that first employed mines on a massive scale to isolate the towns, military installations and power plants under their control.

As the conflict dragged on, however, those mines were increasingly used as an offensive weapon against civilians to deny them access to their food crops, firewood and livestock. Creating a climate of terror worked well enough as strategy: people fled one of Africa’s most fertile countrysides to seek refuge in a handful of big cities that today are home to 64% of the population. Roads, railways and bridges -- so essential for domestic commerce and so neglected by Angola’s former colonial rulers -- were seeded with anti-tank mines, making them the priority for ongoing clearance campaigns.

A slow and dangerous process

Detecting mines is a cumbersome, labor intensive and slow process -- and, at the risk of stating the obvious, an exceedingly dangerous one. Only the Cuban forces who supported the MPLA bothered making maps of the minefields they created, so just knowing where to start, comes down to surveying sites where casualties have already been recorded and adopting the mentality of an individual who plants death traps without regard for who the victim may be.

Nowadays, mines are made almost entirely of plastic in order to thwart conventional metal detecting probes. Israeli researchers, however, have come up with a method of scanning from the air to detect variations in the nitrogen content of the soil that would indicate the presence of mines. And scientists in the United States are achieving promising results with ground penetrating radar, but, sadly, such equipment is still a long way in Angola’s future. Technology will never be enough- Skill, along with an inordinate amount of luck and personal courage are all that Angola’s 7,000  trained mine removal technicians have at their disposal. That, plus a sharp-edged garden trowel.

A skilled, trained sapper may need an hour or longer to scrape away at the earth surrounding a land mine. The trick is to avoid contact with the trigger mechanism on the mine’s upper surface while digging away at the soil from a low angle, going in deep enough so that any contact avoids the spring-loaded trigger. Once the emplacement has been confirmed, a painted stake is driven in the ground to mark the spot where a follow-up team lays a string of firecracker charges for controlled detonation.  

Dogs are extremely good at detecting the scent of the high explosives in buried mines. The tricky part is training them to keep a safe distance, but skilled handlers have had few problems and remarkable successes in teaching their animals to “play the game” safely. MgM, the German NGO, has two facilities in Angola where canine mine-sniffers are groomed for their mission.   

Animals may also become the beneficiaries of demining. One of the most ambitious initiatives to come off the drawing board in recent years involves the recovery and transformation of parts of Kuando Kubango province, also in the war-ravaged southeast, with a view to their eventual inclusion in what is set to become the world’s largest wildlife sanctuary. Assembled from outlying territorial contributions of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and Angola, the Kavango-Zambesi Transnational Wildlife Park would provide Africa’s animals with a secure habitat the size of Italy, and create a tourism-driven economy to benefit inhabitants that now rely on subsistence farming.