The Month in Mines, April 2014Posted: May 23, 2014
The annual observance of the International Day of Mine Action and Awareness on April 4th generates many news stories about the current conditions of mine-affected countries and this year was no different. The April 4th stories tend to be positive in tone and so there is a striking discord between the stories about demining progress and reports of new mine accidents that occurred in April. Especially troubling news came out of Mozambique where political tensions have spilled into violence that threatens the impressive gains there; in Tunisia where landmines are being used by insurgents on Mount Chaambi; in South Sudan where false accusations of landmine use were levelled against the United Nations mission; and Somalia where landmine casualties continue to mount. Additional positive news was seen as Burundi declared itself landmine free (again).
Zimbabwe’s landmine clearance began soon after the new country emerged from the civil war with the former Rhodesia regime in 1980. The clearance continues today after suffering numerous fits and starts. The majority of the more than one million landmines lie along the borders with Zambia and Mozambique and were place by Rhodesian soldiers to prevent liberation fighters from entering the country. The minefields were mapped by Rhodesian soldiers, but those maps were lost in the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, a loss that has hampered clearance and caused loss of life and limb. Best estimates suggest almost 4,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines and over 120,000 cattle have been killed over the last three decades. Even areas that were thought to be safe from landmines can become contaminated by the frequent flooding in the mine-affected regions which disturb and displace the mines.
Currently, three international NGOs, the HALO Trust, Norwegian People’s Aid and the International Committee of the Red Cross are assisting with the landmine clearance. Mukumbura, the most mine-affected province in Zimbabwe was described by HALO as “resembling ‘a country in the immediate post-conflict phase,’ with mines found close ‘to houses, schools and clinics’” suggesting how little clearance has actually taken place. “The younger generations in Mukumbura area are victims of a war that ended years before they were born.” The government of Zimbabwe frequently pleads poverty due to international sanctions (brought about because of Zimbabwe’s illegal farm seizures) and only allocates US $500,000 of the requested $2 million for mine clearance, reflecting the government’s “misplaced priorities.”
Zimbabwe has requested yet another extension, its fourth, of its Mine Ban Treaty-mandated deadline to clear the remaining minefields. The current deadline in January 1, 2015, which will not be met, and the proposed deadline is January 1, 2018 and yet another extension request will be made once the full extent of landmine contamination is known (Southwest Radio Africa; Sunday Mail).
In June Mozambique will host the Third Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty and the country is hoping to show off its best side at that time. There is a strong push within the country to clear the remaining minefields which are mostly along the border with Zimbabwe. With some 20,000 landmine survivors across the country, the scale of the landmine problem in Mozambique was once thought nearly insurmountable, but Mozambique and its donors feel that completion of all demining tasks is possible this year. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) took advantage of the April 4th observances to highlight to role of women deminers in clearing Mozambique’s landmines (All Africa) the director of Mozambique’s national demining institute, Alberto Augusto, highlighted the progress to date: 200,000 mines cleared and a casualty rate of only four persons in 2012. However, Mr. Augusto also described one of the greatest challenges facing Mozambique’s landmine clearance program may not be the landmines or the terrain, but politics. Because the opposition party RENAMO has returned to the “bush” and its roots as a rebel organization, violence in Sofala province, one of the few remaining mine-affected provinces, has halted landmine clearance there, especially after two deminers were injured. Mr. Augusto said that if a ceasefire could not be agreed with RENAMO by May 1, then Mozambique would likely miss its clearance deadline of December 31, 2014 (Voice of America).
The Saharawi Mine Actions Coordination Office (SMACO) hosted a mine risk education workshop in conjunction with the Saharawi Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Saharawi Association of Landmine Victims and Action on Armed Violence. The workshop informed government and civil society leaders of the landmine risks in Western Sahara arising from the separation wall, the berm, erected by the Moroccan government (All Africa). The need for such a workshop was unfortunately confirmed later in the month when a 29 year-old Saharawi was killed by a landmine outside of the city of Smara while he was herding camels (All Africa).
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was accused by the government of South Sudan of arming the rebels loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar with landmines and anti-aircraft weaponry. The accusation arose when South Sudan’s army seized a UNMISS convoy that was carrying weapons for the UN peacekeeping force in the country. The convoy did have guns and riot suppression gear (tear gas and gas masks) but the accusation of landmines was completely false and reckless as was the accusation that UNMISS was arming the rebels (All Africa). In fact, the United Nations has one of its largest landmine clearance programs in South Sudan and the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has been doing heroic work since the start of the civil war in South Sudan in December 2013. UNMAS continues to clear mines from routes and has been investigating use of cluster munitions and new use of landmines by some of the rebels. UNMAS has also provided safe haven for some displaced persons in its compounds (Relief Web). The government of South Sudan does recognize the threat of landmines and has also been educating school children about the threat and has called on all parties to the current conflict to refrain from landmine use (eNCA).
While three-quarters of the minefields of Sudan have been cleared so far, much work remains to be done both in terms of clearance and assistance to survivors because “the number of victims is underestimated in Sudan.” Some 35 million square meters of land, mostly in Sudan’s eastern states, have yet to be cleared and ongoing conflict in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States prevents access to clear minefields there. Sudan’s current landmine clearance plan places work in those two states on hold until the security situation permits access and instead focuses all efforts on other areas. That plan, approved by the States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty requires additional support from the international community as Sudan estimates the cost of mine action at $10 million per year for each of the next three years (All Africa).
In an interesting comment by Sudan’s vice president, Hassabo Mohamed Adbul Rahman, Sudan reiterated its commitment to the Mine Ban Treaty but called on “signatories to stop landmines manufacturing due to their hazardous effects.” I’m hoping something was lost in translation or the Vice President was insufficiently briefed before his remarks because banning manufacture of landmines is one of the most basic requirements of the Treaty (Sudan Vision Daily).
Tunisia has seen a large number of artisanal or home-made landmines being used in the vicinity of Jebel (Mount) Chaambi on the Algerian border. Islamist rebels have used the mountain as a base and placed landmines to kill or injure Tunisian soldiers who are trying to dislodge them. At least 16 mines have exploded over the last year including several in April. On April 10th and 11th, three mines exploded and according to official reports, the first and third mines damaged military vehicles but did not injure the soldiers riding in the vehicle. The second mine injured a civilian when his tractor struck a mine (All Africa; All Africa). In addition to the mines on Mount Chaambi, two mines on nearby Mount Alhaanbe injured eight soldiers, two severely on April 11th and the Tunisian army appears to have tried to minimize the coverage of the incident (All Africa). A week later, a soldier was killed and two more wounded when their vehicle struck a mine on Mount Chaambi (All Africa; Reuters; All Africa).
In the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland, three people were killed and two other injured by an anti-personnel landmine in Qorilugud. The mine was attributed to forces loyal to Somalia’s former dictator Siad Barre and dated to the 1980s (Somaliland Sun).
Somalia’s prime minister, Adbiweli Sheikh Ahmed declared the capitol, Mogadishu, free of landmines, saying, “we must have the ability to give our youth a better life towards greater accomplishments. We also have a responsibility to clean up and eliminate destructive items” (All Africa). Mine clearance is urgently needed in other parts of Somalia. In Dhobley district in the south of the country, a landmine killed three people and injured others when an AMISOM vehicle struck a mine (Somalia Focus). In Galgadud, four people were killed and three injured by a mine (Radio Barkulan).
In Ajdabiya, a man was injured by a landmine, losing his leg and damaging his pelvic bone (Libya Herald). To address the extensive landmine contamination in Libya, civilian volunteers have taken on the dangerous job of minefield clearance. As one of the volunteers noted, the location of minefields is not known, instead “We discover them when a landmine explodes.” The volunteers have formed an organization, “No to Landmines and War Debris,” and received some training from mine action operators through observation and assistance. Now then, I have a very hard time faulting these unbelievably brave men who are doing this work, but they need to be following International Mine Action Standards and accurately documenting their work. Unfortunately, several of the volunteers have been killed in the line of work, two as recently as March, but they have cleared over 23,000 landmines. If there are mine action operators who can help these volunteers out, please do so (All Africa).
As part of the April 4th observances, Angola reported that is has cleared over seven billion square meters of landmines since 1996 (All Africa).
Burundi declared itself free of landmines and will make the formal announcement at the Third Review Conference. In 2011, Burundi declared itself mine-free but discovered some additional, previously undocumented minefields after that declaration and so, per the Treaty’s requirements, Burundi had to complete its landmine clearance again. Burundi is the 11th African country to complete its demining obligations (Xperedon). In addition to clearing mines within its own territory, Burundian soldiers have been trained on landmine clearance in advance of their deployment as part of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia. With support and expertise from the US African Army Command, Burundian peacekeepers will be prepared to sweep a road suspected of landmines or improvised explosive devices (Defence Web).
A French soldier serving in Operation Serval in northern Mali was slightly injured by a landmine near the town of Tessalit (Mali Web). Two weeks later, seven Malian soldiers were injured by a mine in the Gao region of northeastern Mali. The mine was recently laid and blamed upon Islamist fighters who had been ousted by the French forces (AFP).
The United Kingdom used April 4th to highlight their policy paper on landmine clearance, “Clearing a Path to Development,” and described how the UK is helping to clear landmines from Ethiopia. According to the UK, some 2 million landmines pollute Ethiopia with mines dating back to 1935’s invasion by Italy with the worst contamination along the borders with Eritrea and Somalia (Foreign and Commonwealth Office).
Also related to the United Kingdom, a lawyer in Egypt has filed a complaint against the UK for refusal “to pay Egypt over 100 billion British pounds in compensation for landmines planted in the Alamein area of the Western Sahara to target German tanks, which ultimately led to the deaths of thousands of Egyptians.” The landmines in Egypt’s western desert “impede the opportunities of development in the area.” Any response to the complaint from the British government or the office of British prime minister David Cameron who was named in the complaint was not reported (Cairo Post).
The enormous scale of landmine contamination in Egypt has drawn the attention of NATO which is trying to address issues related to the fact that at least 10% of the mines in Egypt are at least 1.5 meters underground as a result of shifting sands in the desert. Traditional detection systems, specifically metal detectors and dogs, are not reliable at such depths and many minefields are also full of other metal fragments. Egyptian and NATO scientists have been experimenting with ground-penetrating radar and dual-sensor technologies to increase the accuracy of mine detection systems. This will lead to better, safer and faster demining of the mine-affected areas in Egypt (NATO).
As part of the African Union’s observance of April 4th, the AU donated “55 handheld mine detectors, 55 protective aprons and 55 visors to Ethiopia, Mauritania, Sudan and Zimbabwe” is support of the AU’s goal of a landmine-free Africa (Defence Web).
Michael P. Moore
May 23, 2014