The Month in Mines: February 2013 by Landmines in Africa

Let’s be honest, Mali dominated the headlines on landmine-related news in February, but it was not the only story.  Mine action continued elsewhere in Africa and new tragedies were reported in several locations.  However, Mali was the main story despite some interesting twists which we will get to.  First, let’s cover the rest of the continent.

 

Namibia

Namibia has previously declared itself to be mine-free, despite incidents that suggest otherwise (The Monitor).  In January and February, three landmines (along with other explosive remnants of war [ERW]) were cleared from an area near the Angolan border.  These items were left over from Namibia’s liberation war against the Apartheid era government of South Africa (All Africa).  At a future meeting of the Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty, Namibia’s mine-free status should be challenged and Namibia should report on its recent and on-going demining activities.

 

Zambia

In one of the oldest, continuously inhabited refugee camps in the world, the Mayukwayukwa settlement in Zambia, landmine survivors and persons with disabilities face severe challenges to even life itself.  In addition to sexual assault and other forms of physical violence, persons with disabilities are unable to access necessary services for rehabilitation and reintegration.  Available prosthetics for amputees include “crudely fashioned peg legs [and] a boot packed with mud” (All Africa).  Last year, Zambia flew several landmine survivors from rural villages to Lusaka for treatment and fittings with new, high-quality prosthetics.  Zambia should continue to pursue this high standard of treatment for its most vulnerable residents.

 

Somalia

As the country gains increasingly levels of security, Somalia and Somalia-watchers are starting to think beyond emergency interventions and think about the development needs of the country.  First, it is still important to realize that Al Shabaab remains very much a threat so while the security situation is improving, there are still regular reports of assassinations and Al Shabaab activity.  Second, the humanitarian crisis is also still very relevant as many people need access to food, clean water and basic medical services.  Recognizing those two caveats, the coverage received from a report by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) regarding the need for landmine clearance to facilitate long term development in Somalia is admirable.  IRIN News, the Catholic Information Service for Africa and NATO’s Civil-Military Fusion Centre all reported on the problem, describing its origins and noting that with the right amount of funding and political will, Somalia could be mine-free in ten years as required by its accession to the Mine Ban Treaty.

 

Zimbabwe

In a follow-up to the story reported last month of an anti-tank landmine detonating during a magical ceremony intended to enrich its quantity of non-existent “red mercury,” the families who lost houses in the blast are reportedly in need of shelter.  Four houses, including the one in which the ceremony took place, were destroyed in the blast and the families who lived in those houses are currently in tents and similar temporary shelters.  The local government has promised to help re-build the houses but with the rainy season in full swing the need is acute (All Africa).

Another Zimbabwean, who suffered severe damage to his face in a mine blast five years ago, has practically hit the victim assistance lottery.  Operation of Hope, an NGO in Southern California, has sponsored Blessing Makwera to travel to San Diego where he will receive a series of three surgeries at Sharp Healthcare over the next six months to repair his jaw and mouth.  After the procedures, Blessing will be able to eat and speak with little or no difficulty.  The surgical teams have donated their services and Operation of Hope is covering all of Blessings travel costs, post-operative care costs and costs associated with his stay in the United States (KFMB Radio).   Such care would not be possible for a 20 year old landmine survivor in Zimbabwe and the long term value in terms of Blessing’s ability to reintegrate into society is incalculable.  But let me say this, money aside, this is the kind of care every landmine survivor should have access to, no matter where they are or what their circumstances have been.  Blessing (an apt name) should not be an anomaly.

 

South Sudan

In the world’s newest state, services for landmine victims and other persons with disabilities are almost nonexistent.  With an estimate 50,000 disabled persons in the country, South Sudan has an enormous challenge ahead of it, a challenge made worse by a culture of discrimination against persons with disabilities and a near-caste system within the disabled community between those who were disabled fighting against the Sudanese government and those disabled from other causes.  As the oil conflict with Sudan continues, the South Sudanese government is forfeiting 98% of its revenue making any service provision impossible.  What few services are available are limited to small stipends for wounded ex-combatants and those stipends are not enough to support a family.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has provided prosthetics to hundreds of people, but the number of people in need continues to grow.  Since independence in July 2011, more than 100 people have been killed or injured by landmines, a figure that is likely underestimating the true extent of the problem (All Africa).

 

Senegal

Two people, a woman and a child, were killed when the cart they were riding on passed over a landmine in the Casamance region.  The road used was a well-traveled one north of the main city in Casamance, Ziguinchor.  The woman was killed instantly, but the child survived just long enough to be brought to a hospital where he succumbed (Agence France Presse).

 

Uganda

The nearly 4,000 Acholi landmine survivors in Northern Uganda are claiming that promised support from the government has not been forthcoming.  After drives to register all landmine survivors in the region, the government ministers have disappeared, along with significant amounts of foreign aid funds that had been intended for reconstruction programs in the region.  Survivors say that “the government had promised to pay those who lost both the arms and legs five million shillings (~US $1,800) and three million shillings (~US $1,100) to those who lost either a leg or arm.”  Compensation could have been used to respond to pressing needs like shelter as hundreds of thousands of formerly displaced Ugandans return to their homes (Ssalongo News).

 

Angola

During a tour of landmine-affected regions, the US Ambassador to Angola, Christopher J. McMullen, re-affirmed the partnership between the US and Angola to overcoming development challenges in Angola.  Amb. McMullen reported that each year, the United States provides US $80 million in aid to combat malaria, polio, HIV / AIDS and other diseases and $20 million for demining to be conducted by Norwegian Peoples Aid (Angola Press Agency).

 

Libya

A student at Tripoli’s Higher Institute of Technology has won a 50,000 Libyan Dinar (~US $40,000) prize for his design of a smart phone application to warn people of possible landmine dangers.  By linking the phone’s GPS system with existing maps and reports of landmine and ERW contamination (from sources like www.MineActionMap.org), travelers would receive an alert on their phone as soon as they entered dangerous areas.  Mohamed Elbishti had used a similar system to locate restaurants in Tripoli and his new application would automatically update as minefields are cleared.  The idea came to him as he thought about the mines along the roads between his home and Misrata and his own inability to remember exactly where the danger spots were (Libya Herald).

 

Mali

In the compilation of stories that make up this segment, more than twice as many words have been written about Mali and Mali’s landmine contamination in February than for all of countries in Africa combined.  I think this demonstrates how the threat of landmines is so often greater than the immediate impact of landmines.  Based upon my research in January and February, there have been at most four landmine incidents in Mali (two in January, two in February) which led to the deaths of 12 individuals and the injury of at least five others.  For those individuals, their families and their communities, the losses are tragic, but the landmine issue in Mali is also about the threat of landmines and how that threat plays out.

Have landmines been used by the Islamist members of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)?  Yes, and they have proudly admitted as much (Agence France Presse).  But MUJAO’s spokesmen also recognize the value of the threat.  By claiming to have laid landmines along the roads throughout northern Mali, they hoped to slow the rapid advance of the French forces.  Because some mines have been used (and frankly once the threat was made, only one needed to be used), the French army has had to clear every road as they move against the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists.  In addition to the claims of MUJAO, it is in the interest of the community fighting against MUJAO to broadcast the threat.  Mali’s foreign minister called MUJAO’s members “barbarians” and “criminals” and said that landmines demonstrate “the large extent to which we need help” from the international community (The Associated Press). Mali’s foreign minister used the landmine threat to call for foreign aid and to clearly demarcate MUJAO as the enemy and not remind the international community that Mali’s current government is the result of a coup against a democratically-elected government and that aid to Mali was frozen after the coup.

In addition to slowing down the advance of French forces and the political uses of landmines, the threat of landmines impacted the delivery of humanitarian aid to Northern Mali.  Doctors with Borders, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF, World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross all put out press releases or comments referencing the threat of landmines and describing the work they did on behalf conflict-affected Malians in February (All Africa; All Africa; All Africa; All Africa; All Africa; All Africa; All Africa; All Africa).  The reports described the difficulties that the threat of landmines posed to relief provision and how the various agencies were working to overcome the threat.

As mentioned above two landmine incidents were reported in Northern Mali in February.  Two civilians were killed on or about February 4th on the road from Kidal.  Four other civilians were killed on the road between Douentza and Gao on February 6th near where two Malian soldiers had been killed by a landmine on January 31st (Agence France Presse).  The road between Douentza and Gao (really the only road between the two) was cleared by French forces who reported finding additional mines (The Associated Press; Agence France Presse).

In response to the new landmine use, the UN’s Mine Action Service has begun training Malian soldiers and police in mine clearance techniques.  The landmine threat in Mali actually predates the current conflict with historic contamination along the border with Algeria and unexploded ordnance from previous Tuareg uprisings.  The goal of the training is to ensure that persons who are currently displaced are able to return to mine-free land when the security situation improves enough for their return (All Africa).

 

Michael P. Moore

March 7, 2013

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