Two Storylines from the London 2012 Paralympics

The 2012 London Paralympics, “the most successful Paralympic Games… thanks to a record-smashing advance sale of more than 2.4m tickets,” have just concluded (The Guardian).  The host nation emphasized ability over disability and the coverage locally appears to have been as complete for the Paralympics as for the Olympics (for example, Arctic Monkeys and Paul McCartney sang at the Olympic closing ceremony; Coldplay and Rihanna at the Paralympic).  Despite the near total absence of any mention of the Paralympics in the United States (Huffington Post), what caught my eye were two other storylines, the high cost of participation in Paralympic events and the different treatment of athletes by their homelands.


The Cost

Prosthetic devices often represent a significant barrier to amputees and landmine victims.  For many, the most basic artificial limbs that would enable a person to walk are prohibitively expensive.  Thus the many attempts documented previously in this blog to invent low-cost, durable prosthetic devices.  The barriers to participation in disability sports are even higher.

Oscar Pistorius has made Ossur’s Cheetah Flex-foot famous, but he can’t make it affordable.  At a cost of US $25,000 to $30,000 for construction and fitting (The Guardian; Challenged Athletes Foundation), the Cheetah foot represents the average annual income in Spain, and six times the average in Angola (World Bank).  Dedeline Mibamba Kimbata, the landmine survivor from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who participated in the discus throw and the 100M wheelchair race, could only participate in the games thanks to a donation of a racing chair from a fellow Paralympian (The Guardian).  Racing wheelchairs typically cost upwards of US $5,000 and while the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has sponsored the development of lower cost chairs for racing, tennis and basketball, the minimum entry cost is still about US $1,000 (The Guardian; Motivation).  The lower cost chairs are an improvement and will allow more people to participate, but $1,000 is still four times the average annual income of someone in the DRC (World Bank). There should also be some concern as to whether or not athletes using lower cost equipment would be at a disadvantage to racers with access to top-of-the-line chairs and prosthetics. 

More will need to be done to make future Paralympic games accessible to all.  At the national level, the sports committees will need to continue to work to overcome discrimination and prejudice against persons with disabilities while providing the space and equipment for people to participate.  Otherwise the trend witnessed again in London, where the Paralympic athletes from poorer countries are restricted to certain events and classification, e.g., twelve of the thirteen Kenyan participants were blind or partially-sighted runners, will continue because the costs of participation in such events are lower (The Guardian).   Events requiring equipment, like the increasing popular wheelchair rugby, or “Murderball,” will remain the province of wealthier countries.


Heroes and Villains

Two Paralympians and landmine survivors, Angola’s José Armando Sayovo and DRC’s Dedeline Mibamba Kimbata, demonstrate the highly politicized nature of international sport.  Savoyo is a national hero, “the pride of the nation” according to Angolan Vice President, Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos (BP London 2012).  Kimbata sought asylum in Great Britain after the end of the Paralympic games for fear of being branded a “traitor” (The Guardian). 

Savoyo served as a sergeant in the Angolan army and was blinded by a landmine during the war against the UNITA rebels.  After his injury, he took up running and has won Paralympic medals at the Athens, Beijing and London games, representing his country.  Kimbata was injured crossing the border between Angola and DRC and lives in a region of DRC that heavily favors the opposition to the ruling Kabila regime.  Even though she nominally represented her country at the Paralympics, her participation in the games was made possible by the IPC and not the Congolese Paralympic Committee.  Kimbata has received little or no support from the government in her recovery (how much support Savoyo received is not clear but as an army veteran, I would assume he received better treatment than Kimbata), and has criticized the Congolege Paralympic Committee, the Kabila government and said she has seen “neighbors shot dead by government forces on election day.” 

In the end, Savoyo will return home to Angola this week to a hero’s welcome.  Kimbata will likely never return home, but she was not made to feel welcome there before she left for the Paralympics.  As one of her teammates said, “In Congo, I have attended demonstrations against the government but it is hard to publicly criticise Kabila when I am in my country. In London, we are free to speak.”  Hopefully she will find a new home where she is welcome.


Michael P. Moore, September 12, 2012

The Month in Mines, August 2012, by Landmines in Africa

August 2012 was very much a Jekyll and Hyde month.  There was the extremely bad (if also very muted) news that Uganda had failed to meet its Treaty-mandated demining deadline of August 1st.  There was also the good news of continued clearance and stockpile destruction in South Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire, respectively.  Hints of a continuing threat of landmines in Zambia percolated from southern Africa whilst in London, a landmine survivor became the first woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo to race at the Paralympic Games. 



Uganda was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Mine Ban Treaty which came into force for Uganda on August 1, 1999.  Most of the landmine contamination in Uganda resulted from the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion in Northern Uganda, an area that was not free from conflict until 2006 when mine clearance could finally begin.  However, delays in demining necessitated the request for a three-year extension, until August 1, 2012, to allow Uganda to complete mine clearance (AP Mine Ban Convention).  On August 2nd, the non-state-controlled newspaper, Daily Monitor, published a report in which the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) announced the conclusion of the “first phase” of demining and an army spokesman said the army “shall continue to demine” and although “de-mining in the region achieved its intended purpose… more still needs to be done” (Daily Monitor). Local reports (Al Jazeera) and a formal notification to the President of the 11th Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty pledged to complete demining by the end of the calendar year (AP Mine Ban Convention).  Uganda is currently in violation of the Mine Ban Treaty and until all demining is completed as required by Article 5 of the Treaty, continues to be in violation.  The Mine Ban Treaty has no provisions to how to treat a country in violation.


South Sudan

Uganda’s neighbor to the north, South Sudan, has faced a torrid time since its creation less than 15 months ago but a sliver of good news comes from the fact that the last known minefield near the capitol, Juba, has been cleared.  The United Nations Mine Action Service asked The Development Initiative to conduct a verification exercise of the minefield, even though several demining organizations have been active in the Juba region.  The Development Initiative reviewed the minefield through technical and non-technical survey and have released it for development, most likely agricultural (UNMAS, pdf).

Cote d’Ivoire

Also in the good news realm, Cote d’Ivoire’s armed forces have been conducting stockpile destruction exercises in July and August, resulting in the elimination of “400 landmines and other munitions” (All Africa).  Cote d’Ivoire has reported in the past that it did not possess any anti-personnel landmines (The Monitor), but any state that discovers stockpiles of mines after the conclusion of the Treaty-mandated four-year period in which to complete stockpile destruction is required to destroy the newly-found mines as soon as possible.  The report on the Cote d’Ivoire exercise says the landmine destruction was conducted in accordance with the Mine Ban Treaty, so we can assume the mines in question were newly discovered and not part of a national stockpile.  I hope.



Two separate explosions in Mogadishu targeted the Somalia military as the combined forces of Somalia, the African Union, Kenya and Ethiopia continued to squeeze the Al Shabaab militia.  The first blast actually killed the persons trying to plant the landmine while also injuring several persons who were nearby (All Africa).  The second blast killed two soldiers and injured others in an attempt to assassinate senior government officials (Press TV). 

As the Somalian government gains control of more and more territory, it is realizing that it needs to exert control and not allow armed forces loyal to other entities, especially Ethiopia, continue to operate with impunity.  Ethiopian soldiers have been most active in central Somalia, near the town of Beledweyne, where they have been attacked several times with improvised explosive devices and landmines.  When these devices explode, the Ethiopian forces have tended to respond harshly shooting randomly into crowds and conducting mass arrests.  In August, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government announced that it would send 220 police officers to Beledweyne to reduce insecurity there, but also protect the innocent population from reprisal attacks by Ethiopian troops (All Africa).



Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, celebrated the Zimbabwe Defence Forces Day with a speech that demonized states who had, through “sinister manoeuvres” imposed “illegal economic sanctions” against Zimbabwe to “effect regime change.”  In saluting the Zimbabwean army’s continued support of his rule, Mugabe also highlighted the recent efforts in the country to clear the landmines that remain from the liberation war against Ian Smith’s Rhodesia.  In doing so, Mugabe presented a common complaint about how the Mine Ban Treaty “puts the responsibility of removing the landmines on the governments of the affected countries instead of punishing those responsible for planting them.” In Zimbabwe’s case, the physical territory of the country is the exact same as that of Rhodesia and the regime that planted the mines, Ian Smith’s, no longer exists to be punished.

Mugabe also complained about the lack of international support for Zimbabwe’s demining efforts.  What support had been provided in the 1990s was withdrawn after the 2000 land grabs by Mugabe’s “war veterans;” part of the “illegal economic sanctions” mentioned above.  With the current political thaw in Zimbabwe’s international relations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been able to provide significant technical and financial assistance to Zimbabwe’s demining program and Mugabe recognized and thanked the ICRC for its support and urged “the ICRC to consider doing more in this highly deserving humanitarian issue” (All Africa).

While Mugabe may not be the best messenger, his point about how the Mine Ban Treaty requires only the affected states to clear landmine within their borders and does not force states that plant landmines in other countries to clear those mines is an important issue for universalization of the Treaty.  Egypt and other North African states have used the fact that many of the landmines within their borders were placed by British and German armies during World War II as the reason they will not sign the Treaty; these and other landmine-affected states feel that the mine problems within their borders should be the responsibility of those who planted the mines and unless funds and assistance are committed to clear the minefields, the affected states cannot take the responsibility for doing so.  This issue has been partially addressed in the more recent Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) which says in Article 4.4.a, when cluster munitions are used by one State Party and the remnants or munitions are physically within the territory of another State Party, “the [cluster munition using] State Party is strongly encouraged to provide, inter alia, technical, financial, material or human resources assistance to the [cluster munition-affected] State Party, either bilaterally or through a mutually agreed third party, including through the United Nations system or other relevant organisations, to facilitate the marking, clearance and destruction of such cluster munition remnants” (Convention on Cluster Munitions, pdf).  The CCM does not require the cluster munition-using State to clear its munitions if they are in another State, only encourages the assistance, but the language recognizes and tries to address a weakness in the Mine Ban Treaty. 

Of course, the responsibility for who must clear the landmines or cluster munitions is irrelevant to the victims and the very next day after Mugabe’s speech, an 11 year-old Zimbabwean boy was killed by a landmine near the border with Mozambique.  The border area is the focus of demining efforts in Zimbabwe, having killed more than 2,000 people over the years (Newsday). 



Zambia’s landmine contamination stems from the 1970s and 1980s conflicts of neighboring states like Zimbabwe and Mozambique and Angola which used Zambian territory for training and logistics.  Instead of complaining about the origins of the landmine problem, Zambia has lately taken a more pro-active approach.  In June a delegation led by the Deputy Minister of Defence visited landmine-affected areas in the northwest of the country.  That delegation identified several landmine victims who needed access to rehabilitation services and this month, at significant expense to the government, five landmine survivors were transferred to Lusaka to treatment.  In Lusaka these five survivors will receive prosthetic devices from the Italian Hospital and all of their accommodation costs during the fitting and physical therapy will be covered.  The head of the Zambia Anti-Personnel Mine Action Centre (ZMAC) took advantage of the publicity surrounding the transfer of the survivors to re-iterate warnings for “people living in once landmine-infested areas to be cautious even if Zambia had been declared a landmine-free country” (All Africa).

Zambian Foreign Ministry officials also have reached out to Russian envoys to solicit for assistance in clearing the remaining landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) in the country.  Appealing to their historical bonds from the Cold War when the Soviet Union provided assistance to anti-colonial movements such as those in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the Zambian officials pressed for Russia to share its demining expertise, saying “We have cleaned some [landmines] but we still have some remaining” (All Africa).



In the “not everything that goes boom is a landmine” file this month, a young man riding a motorcycle in north Sinai died in an explosion about 15 miles from the border with Israel.  According to various sources, the explosion was the result of “the remnants of a war landmine” or “a shell from an unknown source” or “an explosive the man was carrying” or “a missile which exploded while militants were trying to launch it” or “a missile fired by an Israeli drone” (All Africa; All Voices Blog).  The problem is all of these could be source of the explosion and the choice of what to blame the blast upon depends upon the narrative the reporter wishes to emphasize and the reader believes to be true.  If you believe Israel is engaging in assassination attacks against Salafists in Sinai, you will buy the story about the drone.  If you believe Sinai is a haven for terrorists, you will believe the man on the motorcycle was carrying a bomb or missile.  If you believe that this person was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, you will believe the landmine or ERW story.  Each story could explain the blast, but they can’t all be true. 



Speaking of narratives, in August Angola went to the polls to elect a new parliament, which would in turn elect a new president.  The party of the current President, Eduardo Dos Santos, won the election handily meaning that Dos Santos will continue in power for another five years on top of the 33 years he has already served.  Dos Santos is Africa’s second longest serving executive.  While the stories focused on the election and questions about the validity of the election, Angola’s status as one of the most mine-affected countries in the world was also part of the story.  While the people of Angola are clamoring for more equitable sharing of the nation’s considerable oil wealth, the perception of Angola as a landmine-plagued state endures.  The reports that included mentions of Angola’s landmines did not discuss the mine-clearance efforts or chide the government for failing to provide adequate victim assistance support; instead, mention was made of the presence of landmines in the country as though that was enough (Reuters).  I find mentions of landmines like this to be a bit specious.  Yes, landmines are a tremendous problem for Angola and need to be highlighted, but not as a throwaway line.  Every month (well, except this month because of the election), there are stories about the landmine issue in Angola and the efforts by national and international actors to resolve it.  Use those stories, not shortcuts.


Democratic Republic of Congo

At the London Paralympics next week, a woman will race for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for the first time.  Twelve years after losing her legs to a landmine near the border with Angola, Dedeline Mibamba Kimbata, will race in the 100 meter wheelchair race.  As of this writing, she has already competed in the discus throw (London 2012 Official Site). Kimbata is one of two DRC athletes at the Paralympics, the first two athletes ever to represent DRC.  She lost her legs crossing the border between DRC and Angola, saying, “The bus takes you right up to the border, and then you must cross on foot… I took a shortcut instead of following the main road, but I had no idea there were landmines there. There was a sudden noise, like a bullet, and then I fell. I didn’t feel any pain at that time.” 

Kimbata’s recovery from her injuries was slow due to the poor standard of care available to her. “Kimbata lived in the hospital for two years, but because her family could not afford treatment she often slept in the corridor, sharing a communal wheelchair in order to go to the toilet. She ate only when people visiting their own relatives shared their food.”

Kimbata’s racing wheelchair was donated by another Paralympic athlete, Kenya’s Anne Wafula Strike, the first East African woman to race at a Paralympics and a survivor of polio.  The chair itself costs over £5,000, a price prohibitive to most amputees in Africa.  Strike and Kimbata are hoping their experiences will help overcome discrimination and prejudice: “We can show Africa that we may be women with disabilities but we are so able in other ways, and we want opportunities not sympathy.”  Kimbata entered and completed university after her injury and now harbors hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio (The Guardian).  Kimbata’s race is on Saturday, September 8th.  


Michael P. Moore, September 5, 2012