The Month in Mines, April 2013 by Landmines in AfricaPosted: May 4, 2013
Annually, the world observes April 4th as the International Day for Mine Awareness and Action. As a result, the month of April, along with the month of the Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty and the accompanying release of the annual Landmine Monitor, sees many articles and news stories about landmines, their impacts upon communities and efforts to clear them. This year was no different and there were re-affirmations of landmine policies, calls to action and general reports in addition to specific stories about landmine accidents and activities. During months like this, one does get a sense of how widespread the threat of landmines continues to be and the importance of continued mine action. From West Africa to East Africa, from North to South, the threat remains and in some places appears to be growing. Also be forewarned, this will be a long report; there is an awful lot of news to cover…
Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, declared April 4th to be a national working holiday in honor of the International Day for Mine Awareness and Action. The country called upon others to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty and warned about maintaining vigilance for landmines and other explosive remnants of war (ERW). The African Union Ambassador to Liberia, with support of representatives from the European Union, the government of Liberia and the International Committee of the Red Cross, declared Liberia and the West African sub-region to be free of anti-personnel landmines (All Africa), although he did not say which countries he included in the region since landmine continue to be an issue in Senegal and have emerged as an issue in Mali.
In the western region of Darfur, officials took advantage of the April 4th observances to highlight the continuing threat of landmines and ERW in the conflict-affected region despite efforts by the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping forces to demine affected areas (All Africa). Unfortunately, their warnings were sadly prescient as one child was killed and another injured three weeks later when a landmine detonated near where they were playing (All Africa).
Violence in South Sudan, especially in Unity and Jonglei States have interrupted efforts at mine clearance, while also adding to the existing problem through new use of mines. Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the United Nations and national and international mine action operators have been working to clear landmines and many South Sudanese states are now free of mines, but mine risk education and victim assistance programs must remain a priority (All Africa). For those states where the mines have been cleared, refugees have been able to return to their homes, although the clashes in states along the border with Sudan have kept some away (All Africa).
Morocco and Western Sahara
The release of a video describing conditions in the Sahrawi refugee camps on the Guardian’s website served as a reminder of “Africa’s Last Colony.” Coincidentally released on April 4th, the video shows footage of the 2,700 kilometer-long berm that splits Western Sahara between the western region controlled by Morocco and the eastern region governed by the internationally-recognized Polisario Front. The berm is composed of a dirt wall and is protected by millions of landmines, preventing any crossing from one side to the other (All Africa).
According to one report, the Egyptian navy seized a vessel in the Red Sea that was carrying 45 tons of military hardware including landmines. The potential destination of the arms was not mentioned, but American and British crewmen were taken into custody to try and determine the origin and purpose of the shipment (All Africa).
On the subject of getting landmines out of Egypt, rather than into the country, Egyptian authorities announced the purchase of a second demining vehicle to help with the clearance of some 20 million (yes, million) landmines from the western deserts around the World War II battlefields of El Alamein. With a 2016 target for completion, the mine clearance will open up an area equivalent to a fifth of Egypt’s total territory. The vehicle, an Armtrack 400 was bought from a British firm with the support of grants from a number of sources. Egypt estimates that another US $23 million dollars in assistance is needed to complete the demining and there are plans to purchase two more Armtrack 400 machines bringing the total number to four. In addition to the development opportunities that demining will allow – including agriculture, city planning, natural gas and oil exploration – there is the humanitarian imperative to clear the mines. Over the last thirty years, 800 people have been killed by landmines in Egypt and another 7,500 have been injured (Xinhua; Ahram; All Africa; Cambridge News).
“Zimbabwe is one of the most mine-impacted countries in the world in terms of area affected and density of mines” (Nehanda Radio). Says it all really.
335 kilometers of Zimbabwe’s borders with Mozambique and Zambia are contaminated with landmines which are present in a density of 5,500 mines per square kilometer for a total of some 2 million mines. $100 million in support is required for Zimbabwe to clear all of the minefields, but at present, the area and depth of contamination is only estimated. Over the next two years, Zimbabwe and mine action operators will conduct surveys to determine the actual scope of the problem. The presence of landmines has effectively sealed the borders to trade and prevented the development of many fertile fields (The Africa Report). In addition to organized demining, residents of the mine-affected regions engage in community demining, described as “daredevil landmine-clearing.” The process starts by setting controlled fires and then sifting through the ashes for mines. Several people detonated landmines during these actions, the result of which they describe as follows: “In the event that one steps and denotes a landmine, that person is shredded to pieces. We do not bury those that would have been blown by landmines since there will be no bones or skeletons to bury” (The Sunday Mail).
In other news of landmine tampering, the victims of the Chitungwiza landmine blast that resulted from the attempts to extract mythical red mercury from a landmine continue to be homeless. The blast killed six people and destroyed a dozen houses. The residents of those houses have been living in temporary tents but with winter approaching, they need more permanent accommodations (All Africa). One person who has received support since his landmine injury is Blessing Makwera, a young Zimbabwean man who suffered severe facial injuries from tampering with a landmine six years ago. Operation of Hope, a not-for-profit organization in Portland, Oregon that donates surgical expertise, has sponsored Blessing to come to the United States and undergo several surgeries to reconstruct his jaw and face and enable him to return to normal life. At present, Blessing is working as a teaching assistant at a Portland-area school whose students had raised some of the funds necessary to pay for his surgeries and travel as he awaits the final round of operations (ABC News).
On April 15th, Somalia’s President, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, condemned the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15th, making specific reference to the 8 year-old victim (RBC Radio). He made those comments barely 24 hours after bombings in Mogadishu killed 29 people and injured 58 others (Voice of America). On a day when his focus should have been on his own people, Somalia’s President took some time to recognize the shared threat of terrorism that people around the world face. I wonder how many Americans recognized the same. Back to the landmines…
The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has been active in Mogadishu clearing landmines at former government military bases that were abandoned when the Siad Barre regime collapsed (All Africa). In addition to old mines, Al Shabaab appears to have launched a new offensive, beginning with the large blast in Mogadishu and used landmines to attack vehicles and individuals. In Mogadishu, a district commissioner’s car was targeted by a landmine as he left an anti-Al Shabaab demonstration (RBC Radio). In the Shabelle and Hiraan regions of the country, African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) vehicles were targeted in separate attacks (All Africa; All Africa). After the attack in Shabelle region, AMISOM troops “opened fire” to disperse crowds that gathered. Kenyan forces battled Al Shabaab militias after landmines were used to ambush convoys in the Juba region (All Africa) and in Garissa (Sabahi). The battle in Juba was accompanied by airstrikes while the actions in Garissa led to a security crackdown and the arrest of over 100 individuals.
The news out of Somalia is not all bad, though. The Medina Hospital in Mogadishu, the largest emergency facility in a city that has seen decades of continuous fighting, reports a drop in the number of battle injuries. “Medina you can use as a thermometer. It has the temperature of the security of the city. Every person that gets injured by bullet, shelling, hand bomb or land mine, usually they transport them to this hospital,” but in recent months, only 70 to 80 percent of the hospital’s 300 beds have been taken up by war injuries; down from 95%. The high figure still shows the level of violence in Mogadishu, but the fact that the doctors are noticing a drop is a positive sign and hopefully, that percentage will continue to decline (Voice of America).
At the beginning of the month, the United Nations Secretary General described the security and humanitarian issues facing Mali, including usage of landmines by Islamist forces, as a means of lobbying for a United Nations led mission to replace the African Union mission that had been launched last September (All Africa). Later in the month, under a Chapter VII peace-making, not peace-keeping, mandate, the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) was re-hatted and augmented with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) which will take effect on July 1, 2013. Part of the rationale for the MINUSMA mission was the continuing threat of landmines and so part of the MINUSMA Charter is “To assist the transitional authorities of Mali, through training and other support, in mine action and weapons and ammunition management” (All Africa).
Tunisia declared itself free of anti-personnel landmines as of March 2009 (The Monitor) so the reports of several landmine blasts at the end of the month came as a bit of a surprise. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolts, some terrorist groups have taken refuge in the area of Jebel Chaambi in the mountainous region of Kasserine along the border with Algeria. It is possible that terrorist cells have long operated in this region, but under the Ben-Ali dictatorship that was overthrown in 2011, information about these groups was limited. At least three landmines were triggered by Tunisian National Guardsmen who were pursuing members of the terrorist group, a group that had been prepared for an assault and established perimeter defenses using landmines. The event has received extensive coverage in African and Arabic media outlets suggesting that any restrictions on journalism under the old regime have been well and truly lifted, a positive sign from the cradle of the Arab Spring (All Africa; All Africa; All Africa; All Africa; World Bulletin; Maghrebia). The acting Prime Minister of Tunisia declared “the state will fulfill its national duty towards security units who face risks in the accomplishment of their tasks of maintaining order in the country” and promised social security coverage for the injured men to assist in their recovery (All Africa).
With two new demining firms, South Africa’s Mechem and Norwegian People’s Aid, on the ground in Senegal, the prospects for meeting the country’s 2016 mine clearance deadline are looking up. Half of the known mined land in the Casamance region has already been cleared, with almost half of that area cleared in the last year. There are lingering fears that the separatist movement in Casamance is still using landmines and until a permanent peace is in place, the areas controlled by the separatists cannot be cleared of mines, but the general movement appears positive. New injuries were reported in March, but whether those were due to new or old mines is not known. In addition to the demining progress, the US State Department is making positive noises about the potential for a peace settlement which would ensure that the long term threat of landmines in Senegal is eliminated (IRIN News).
Have you heard of the Lord’s Resistance Army and Joseph Kony? Of course you have; they were the subject of a viral internet video made by Invisible Children whose director had a complete mental breakdown after the backlash against his simplistic and self-indulgent description of the conflict. But have you heard of the Allied Democratic Force (ADF) or any of the other 20, yes twenty, rebel movements that have tried to overthrow the Museveni regime in Uganda? No? Well, the ADF was one of the better resourced and more successful of these insurgencies, launched in 1996 they attacked several army outposts along the Ugandan border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing and capturing hundreds of people. Supported by the government of Sudan in Khartoum, the ADF used landmines throughout western Uganda and in recent months appears to have been resurrected by one of its founders and is now training rebels in DRC, taking advantage of the chaos there. Armed with landmines and heavy weapons, the ADF has almost 1,000 fighters ready to attack Uganda – that’s triple the number Joseph Kony had at last count (All Africa).
The US Ambassador to Angola, Christopher McMullen, used a speech at the Agostinho Neto University to lay out the US’s strategic interests in Angola. While acknowledging the primacy of petroleum in those strategic interests, Ambassador McMullen tried to make the case for why the US would be interested in Angola beyond just oil. The US has provides millions of dollars annually in support of mine action in Angola to clear minefields for agricultural use as part of the strategic objective to “promote opportunity and development” (All Africa). Part of the result of that investment has been the clearance of over 100,000 kilometers of roads, 1.1 billion square meters of land and thousands of kilometers of rights of way for railroads and fiber optic lines (All Africa).
Ethiopia Satellite News, a diaspora-based news organization that does not have friendly feelings for the current regime, accused officers of the Ethiopian military of looting the Ethiopian Demining Organization (EDO). Supported by the United States and Europe, the EDO was shut down suddenly and its 700 employees were terminated. Ethiopian officers then took possession of EDO’s heavy vehicles used for transport. Investigations into the matter by the anti-corruption agency were “stopped due to undisclosed reasons” (Ethiopia Satellite News). As a country, Ethiopia has made good progress towards becoming mine-free and if this story is true, it would represent a true shame.
Observance of the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action
(hold on friends, we’re almost there)
The International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action offered the opportunity for many in the international community to re-affirm their vision of a mine-free world. Ms. Agnès Marcaillou, the new director of UNMAS, said simply “[anti-personnel landmines] have no place in the 21st Century” while the International Campaign to Ban Landmines stated “This weapon does not distinguish the foot of a child from the foot of a soldier” and the representative of the Mine Ban Treaty’s Implementation Support Unit said “Communities continue to suffer because the socio-economic impact is enormous” (United Nations). UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon highlighted the United Nations’s new mine action strategy saying that mine action “that advances peace, enables development, supports nations in transition and saves lives” (All Africa). The Vatican’s spokesman described the “moral imperative to stop the use or production of these banned weapons” (Vatican Radio), while in the US, the international Lend Your Leg campaign tried to pressure the Obama Administration to accede to the Mine Ban Treaty (Huffington Post).
Two pieces especially stood out for me among the Mine Awareness Day stories. Ken Rutherford, himself a landmine survivor and the Director of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery at James Madison University said:
This must not be another day marked by another spate of press releases — this day calls for action. The global community has the opportunity and responsibility to assist all victims of conflict. The United States, along with Burma and Syria, is not yet a State Party to the Ottawa Convention. Although the current US policy is being actively reviewed, we cannot wait for policy to drive progress. As Burma and Syria evolve, we must anticipate a day when the idea of a just and prosperous future is available not only to the abled but also the differently abled (Huffington Post).
With this call for action over statements, Rutherford pushes us all to realize that mine action is first and foremost, action and needs to be more than words and demonstration, subtly rebuking most of the other Mine Awareness Day events.
The second piece was an announcement by South Africa’s Denel Mechem which makes mine-resistant vehicles for militaries. In the report, Mechem announced that they wanted to sell their vehicles to civilian clients who “transported life-saving medicines, food, tents and fuel but were ‘vulnerable to the scourge of land mines and roadside bombs’” in Africa (Business Day Live). This worries me that at least one company recognizes that the threat of landmines and improvised explosive devices is so great these days that humanitarian workers, who were not targets in the past, need mine-resistant vehicles to do their job. We are either militarizing the humanitarian sphere by accepting this vehicle or late in recognizing that humanitarian workers have become legitimate targets in some groups’ eyes.
Michael P. Moore
May 4, 2013