Most of this month’s storylines are ones that we have been following for some time. There are a few new wrinkles, in Nigeria, Sudan and the United States that we will discuss, but for the most part, the stories from August, typically a slow news month thanks to the holiday and vacation season in the Global North, will sound repetitious (they certainly do to me). Repetition in mine action can be positive, as in Angola where the monthly announcements of newly trained deminers and newly cleared minefields are signs of progress. It can also be negative as in Somalia where every new report of a landmine blast means additional casualties.
Despite the clearance of half a million explosive remnants of war (ERW) in the short period since the overthrow of Gaddhafi, hundreds of thousands of landmines and other ERW remain on the ground. Almost 300 people have been killed or wounded by ERW in the last thirty months, a rate that is among the highest in the world. Landmine clearance has been prioritized by the development agencies active in Libya, but the scale of the problem is massive (and does not even account for the 100,000 landmines looted from Gaddhafi’s stockpiles and whose whereabouts are still unknown). Past reports, from before the most recent conflict included figures such as 1.5 million landmines in the ground, 12,000 victims and minefields along the borders of Chad, Egypt and Tunisia. Right now, the problem is despite the initial investments and interests in mine action from the international community, the Libyan mine action authorities are projecting a $20 million funding shortfall for 2013, a shortfall that is likely to be seen in future years as donors expect Libya’s oil and natural gas wealth to cover the costs of mine action. In a positive step, the nascent Libyan civil society is pushing for adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty despite the low priority the national government is giving to accession (All Africa).
The current narrative in Somalia, of a country emerging from two decades as a “failed state,” continuous violence, starvation from famine and the threat of an Islamist takeover took a severe hit when Doctors Without Borders (MSF) withdrew from the country (MSF). MSF’s withdrawal left a gaping hole in the medical infrastructure of the country, but that is not the only sign that the narrative is flawed. Somalia faces a huge burden on landmines and other ERW that remains from conflicts going back to World War II. In the last three years, at least 82 children have been killed or injured by landmines placed around Koranic schools and other areas that had been under Al Shabaab’s control (All Africa). Mogadishu has been described recently as a “hotbed for violence, planned assassinations, military-style ambushes and bombings” and security in the capital is “extremely volatile and poor” (All Africa). In the Lower Shabelle region, not only has Al Shabaab been very active, with a reported 20 attacks foiled by Somali security forces, but the Islamists remain in control of the city of Barawe despite efforts of the multinational force arrayed against it. Al Shabaab does not seem to have won many hearts and minds in the regions it still controls, but its lingering presence, let alone the barrage of attacks it launched during Ramadan, challenges the current Somalia narrative (All Africa).
In Somalia, several landmine attacks, some attributed to Al Shabaab, were successful in wreaking havoc and destruction. In Jowhar, a city in the Shabelle region, an AMISOM vehicle was “damaged beyond recognition” and while no casualties were reported among the security forces, two civilians in the area were injured. On the road to Shalanbot, another landmine targeted an AMISOM convoy leading to the road’s closure by security (All Africa). Also in Shalanbot, the deputy governor was injured and members of his security detail were killed and wounded by a landmine (All Africa). In Kismayo, in the Jubbaland region, several attacks took place. An administration elder was killed when his vehicle drove over a mine (AMISOM Media Monitoring), Kenyan troops serving in AMISOM were targeted in two blasts against a convoy with an unknown number of casualties (Shabelle Media), and at least two peacekeepers were killed and others injured by a landmine that “could be heard in all the town before dawn” (AMISOM Media Monitoring). In Mogadishu, five Somali soldiers were killed by landmines targeting their convoy (All Africa).
In the generally more peaceful region of Somaliland, the specter of landmines continues. A boy playing soccer with his friends stepped off the pitch to retrieve a ball and stepped on a mine. The soccer field was near the regional governor’s office in an area that is a “crowded estate in the [Somaliland’s] second capital” and should have been cleared of mines previously (Somaliland Sun).
This month Angola announced that two regions, the Okavango-Zambezi border conservation area and Huambo Province, will both be mine-free in the foreseeable future (All Africa; All Africa). Angola also continues to build up the capacity of its deminers through trainings on supervision, mapping and quality control (Angola Press Agency). But the world received two reminders about the continuing threat of landmines in the country. Great Britain’s Prince Harry, in his role as the patron of the HALO Trust’s 25th Anniversary campaign, traveled to Angola to meet with HALO Trust deminers and observe clearance work in the country. Prince Harry also visited Cuito Cuanavale, “the most densely-mined town in Africa,” which did not sound like it was currently targeted for clearance. According to reports, Prince Harry was “pleased” to see the progress made in clearing landmines (Global Post; Associated Press; The Telegraph). Simultaneous to Prince Harry’s visit, in the other reminder, which received much less attention, a woman was killed and her three daughters injured when they struck a landmine whilst farming (All Africa). Landmines aren’t just photo ops and awareness raising isn’t enough. Prince Harry had the luxury of being “irritated” by the slow progress of mine clearance in Angola. For thousands of family, the pace of progress is deadly.
On the border of Sudan and South Sudan, in North Khordofan, a truck struck a landmine and seven people were injured whilst on their way to the market town of Tamjoyah in South Khordofan. Save the Children has responded by providing mine risk education (All Africa; Gulf News). In Jonglei State in South Sudan, two women were injured by a landmine while cooking near the site of a former military base (Relief Web).
In response to casualties such as these and intensive lobbying by the organization, Geneva Call, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N), a rebel organization fighting the Sudan government, signed the Geneva Call Deed of Commitment. The Deed pledges the SPLM-N to abide by the principles and obligations of the Mine Ban Treaty. During the Sudanese civil war, the SPLM – which is now the ruling party of South Sudan – signed the Deed which non-state actors and rebel groups can sign. The SPLM-N will now destroy its stockpiles of anti-personnel landmines, which it claimed to have “captured during military operations” (Geneva Call, pdf). I am troubled by SPLM-N’s statement about the source of the mines since the government of Sudan should have already destroyed its stockpiles and there is no one else the SPLM-N could have captured the mines from. More should be done to discover the source of these mines, but the efforts of Geneva Call are to be commended and the SPLM-N’s commitment to mine clearance and humanitarian assistance are welcome.
Zimbabwe’s recently re-elected president, Robert Mugabe, praised the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) at the 33rd Anniversary of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces Day for “maintaining peace and tranquility.” Mugabe described the landmine clearance efforts of the ZDF and recognized that the country had not met its obligations under the Mine Ban Treaty. Mugabe blamed the “limited available resources” for mine clearance on “illegal sanctions” imposed by “neo-colonial” states, i.e., the United States and the United Kingdom. Mugabe described the recent mine clearance activities and the partnerships established with the HALO Trust and Norwegian Peoples Aid to expedite the survey and clearance work as a demonstration of the good works done by the ZDF (All Africa).
Nigeria’s president declared a state of emergency in the Northern states as a response to the threat posed by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Since that declaration, security services have been trying to root out Boko Haram and over 30 soldiers have been killed in the operations. According to one author, “some were killed by landmines,” which is the first mention of landmines in Nigeria I have seen in this current conflict (All Africa). Nigeria had some landmine contamination from the Biafra War in the 1960s but a few years ago Nigeria declared that it had cleared all of its anti-personnel landmines as required by the Mine Ban Treaty, so any new reports of landmines like this one should be investigated.
Tunisian security forces are still trying to capture or eliminate Islamists who have been hiding out in the Jebel Chaambi region along the Algerian border. During one of the sweeps, a tank hit an anti-vehicle mine resulting in two deaths and six injuries, a day or two after eight Tunisian soldiers were killed during an ambush that used landmines to force the soldiers into a trap (Reuters; All Africa; All Africa).
In western Algeria, another Islamist group hiding out in the Beni Milleuk Mountains has also used landmines in an attempt to trap the security forces arrayed against them in an ambush (KUNA).
The United States has been the largest single donor to mine action. As such, when funds from the United States are held up, as they have been thanks to the sequester and partisan budget battles in Washington, the impact on mine-affected countries, communities and people is immense. Clear Path International has had to lay off half of its 12,000-person workforce in Afghanistan and 13 out of 18 victim assistance programs have been placed on hold. Clearance teams in Lebanon, Cambodia and Vietnam have run out of funding and have been working without pay, when they have been working. The State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement is hopeful that funds will be available soon, but there are no guarantees, not with new opportunities for fights between the Obama Administration and Congress on the horizon (Boston Globe).
And in a show of obscene tone-deafness, at the same time that President Obama was trying to rally domestic and international support for strikes against Syria for violating “international norms” on the use of chemical weapons, the United States flaunted the international norms related to cluster munitions and landmines. The Department of Defense placed a US $12 million order for remote control units for the new Spider anti-personnel landmine system and the government sold US $641 million worth of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia (The Motley Fool; Business Insider). And this comes after the United States criticized the Gaddhafi regime in Libya and the Assad regime in Syria for using landmines and cluster munitions.
Michael P. Moore
September 12, 2013