Landmines and the Famine in East Africa

Much of the Horn of Africa is polluted by landmines and explosive remants of war.  Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Somaliland all have extensive minefields and ERW contamination from wars dating back to the Italian invasion in the 1930s.  The recent war (1998) between Eritrea and Ethiopia placed more mines and ordnance along the countries’ borders and the near-permanent state of civil war in Somalia has meant that two decades’ worth of explosive material litters the areas around Mogadishu and 10% of the communities in Bakol (or Bakool) have landmines and ERW.  Surveys in Somalia have been limited, but according to the Landmine Monitor, in 2009 Somalia had 126 landmine and ERW casualties on top of the 116 in 2008.  Ethiopia saw 21 casualties over the same years, Eritrea 102, Somaliland 81 and zero for Djibouti.  The Horn of Africa represented 40% of all landmine casualties in Africa in 2009 and the Monitor believes the numbers are under-reported, suggesting many more incidents went undocumented.

As a result, I expected to find significant reporting on the plight of landmine victims as a vulnerable population within the famine-affected region.  Instead, I’ve seen no mention of landmine accidents or reports from mine action organizations (specifically the HALO Trust, Mines Advisory Group and Handicap International) about how their work has been constrained by the famine.  The civil war in Libya has dominated headlines about landmines in Africa along with the deaths of four United Nations peacekeepers in Abyei in Sudan.  The one report I could find described how landmines had closed a road to Dolo, one of the towns in Somalia’s declared famine zone. 

The below graphic, compiled by the BBC from information from UNOCHA, UNHCR, USAID and the Famine Early Warning System Network, shows the famine-affected areas including the mine-affected regions of Bakool and Mogadishu:


The Guardian and the Christian Science Monitor both wrote about the difficulties in providing famine relief to Somalia.  Both papers blamed Al-Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel movement, and the lack of funding for the World Food Programme in general and for famine relief in Somalia in particular.  The Christian Science Monitor also points out that violence is on-going in Mogadishu and elsewhere in Somalia and that the country as a whole lacks a government; the Transitional Federal Government, the UN-recognized authority in Somalia, only controls the small amount of land protected by Ugandan and Burundian peace-keeping forces.  The Guardian lays some of the blame on the United States’s anti-terrorism laws which are designed to prevent assistance from reaching groups like Al-Shabaab.  These laws create a reporting and due diligence burden that aid agencies and organizations have difficulty understanding.

I could take this lack of information as a positive sign: no news is good news; if there are no reports of injuries from landmines amongst the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the famine, then maybe there aren’t any such injuries or only just a few.  Alternatively, as the Landmine Monitor has suggested, reports of landmine casualties may be under-reported and simply lost in the thousands of refugees and displaced persons arriving in camps every day.  According to Handicap International, of the 400,000 refugees in Dabaab camp just across the Somali border in Kenya, at least 20,000 have some form of disability, but the registration and identification of services needed for those persons is woefully inadequate.  Of the estimated 8,000 refugees with disabilities who arrived in the camp in July 2011, only 500 have been registered and only two (2!?) wheelchairs were issued.  Therefore I think it is likely that a great many landmine victims may be living in Dabaab and other camps without their situation being known and without access to rehabilitation services.  In an area where access to the necessities of life – water, food, vaccines – is limited, access to rehabilitation services may be impossible, compounding the vulnerability of landmine victims.

In addition to the landmine victims in the camps, many landmine victims may not have been able to make the trip or suffered from injuries along the way.  From a study in Uganda, 61% of deaths due to landmine injury were immediate and the majority of the other deaths occurred during transit to the hospital.   Refugees arriving at Dabaab camp traveled as far as 249 miles across landmine and ERW-affected regions; if someone stepped on a landmine, it is unlikely that they would have been able to finish the trip and their death would be unrecorded. 

There is another side to the impact of landmines in the East African famine: what happens when refugees and displaced persons return home?  In Angola after the civil wars there, returnee families would settle on land that was heavily mined, sometimes with the knowledge of the presence of mines, sometimes not.  In Bosnia, I was told that the months with the highest numbers of landmine victims were not during the war years, but afterwards when people returned to their homes, not knowing that their land had been mined.   These injuries took place before mine-risk education programs could be implemented and before any minefield surveys were conducted.  Thus, the risk from landmine contamination for people affected by the famine in East Africa could last long after the famine concludes.  When refugees and displaced persons leave the camps and return to their homes, they will have to pass once more through mine-affected areas and may find their homes are now mine-affected when before they were not. 

So, the silence about landmines in the midst of the East African famine is probably just that, silence.  With the possibility of thousands if not millions of deaths due to starvation, landmines and landmine injuries are a small concern, but not one that should be forgotten.

Michael P. Moore. August 5, 2011


One Comment on “Landmines and the Famine in East Africa”

  1. Appoorva S says:

    Thought provoking and insightful.

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