I spent the last two days as a guest of the fantastic HALO Trust, learning first-hand about their work on the northeastern border of Zimbabwe. The minefields here date back to the late 1970s during Zimbabwe’s liberation war and were laid by the Rhodesian government. In 1998 – 2000, Koch MineSafe, a commercial demining firm (which employed many of the same deminers currently working for HALO), cleared some of the landmines, but also left many still in the ground.
The Rhodesian government laid landmines in three rows: a Cordon Sanitaire minefield with barbed wire and buried anti-personnel mines closest to the border; three layers of Ploughshare (or Ploughshear), a directional fragmentation mine, similar to the Claymore, linked to overlapping tripwires, with each Ploughshare protected by two “keeper” landmines to prevent tampering; a reinforcement minefield consisting of two rows of anti-personnel landmines.
Koch cleared the Cordon Sanitaire landmines closest to the border and many of the Ploughshare landmines, but in most places left the reinforcement minefields (Koch’s contract covered clearance of the Cordon Sanitaire and two rows of Ploughshares). HALO is clearing all of the mines it finds, and during my visit I saw clearance of the reinforcement minefields and the third row of the Ploughshare minefield. The density of the minefields is such that HALO is clearing more than a thousand landmines a month (all anti-personnel mines), one of the highest clearance rates anywhere in the world.
Most of the Ploughshare mines detonated long ago, the only remnants are the stakes that held the mines and the keepers (Portuguese MAPS and either Italian-made VS50s [not pictured] or South African-made R2M2s). In the reinforcement minefield, all of the mines are the South African M2R2s, one of which I could see sitting on top of the ground, others are buried up to 20 centimeters.
Because the mines have been here for so long, the impacts on the local communities are staggering. In one village in HALO’s working area, more than 20 persons suffered landmine injuries resulting in amputations. In another community, 14 cattle were lost in a single year. At the local primary school, 66 children from Mozambique crossed the minefields twice every day to attend classes.
The communities are aware of the minefields. Elders lived in the area when the mines were planted and many remembered the clearance work done by Koch. All have stories of friends, family members or livestock killed or injured by mines. But, the best farmland in the region cruelly lies between the minefield and the Mukumbura River and the water holes are in the same place. Many paths of various widths crisscross the minefields and while villagers felt safe on the paths, HALO found landmines just steps away.
HALO has worked with the communities to identify the minefields, and has also provided assistance to many survivors. In addition to freeing up land for development and agriculture (many local headmen are eyeing the cleared fields for housing for their communities) and making the paths to and from the water holes safer, HALO has arranged for several amputees to receive new prosthetic limbs. For some survivors, these are the first limbs they have received in more than thirty years (or ever).
There is still much to be done. In addition to the HALO Trust, Norwegian People’s Aid is clearing minefields along the eastern border, around the city of Mutare, and the engineering division of Zimbabwe’s army is busy with the southeastern borders. Since 2013, the pace of clearance has increased immensely, but years more effort will be needed to clear the rest of the mines at the current levels of support.
My second day in Zimbabwe was spent seemingly entirely in taxis as I was ferried from one place to another in search of my appointments. In the morning, I visited an NGO service provider, Jairos Jiri, and in the afternoon an advocate for persons with disability, the Disabled Women’s Support Organization.
The Jairos Jiri Orthopedic Workshop is one of the facilities in Zimbabwe that produces prosthetic devices for amputees.
The workshop had a staff of eight on the day I visited, five technicians, a cleaner, an accountant and the director. The technicians and the accountant are persons with disability and while the Workshop wasn’t intended as a sheltered program, that’s how it has developed. Some of the technicians have been with Jairos Jiri for more than twenty years and produce high quality items with less than ideal resources. For wheelchairs, they accept donated chairs and then re-furbish them, customized to the client. For prosthetics, they conduct an initial assessment, measure, fabricate and then fit below-knee and above-knee prostheses.
The technicians are also able to produce orthopedic shoes and assist with adjustment of crutches.
Unfortunately, Jairos Jiri is not able to provide these items free of charge. Because the raw materials for prosthetics need to be imported, there is some cost to the client; wheelchairs, even though they are made from donated parts may still cost US $100 (compared to $250 – 300 for new). For some clients, medical aid is available reducing the cost, but there is still an out-of-pocket expense for clients. Gilbert, the Director of the Workshop, estimates 10 people come to the workshop every day for consultation or assessment, but only a handful of those are able to purchase the products, even at the reduced rates offered by Jairos Jiri.
On top of the costs, the facility itself is a fair distance from the center of Harare and far from public transportation options. When I visited at the Workshop, I saw the technician who makes the shoes arriving in a hand-cranked wheelchair. The Workshop is about 300 meters from the main road, up a fairly steep slope which is potholed and broken. And this, for residents of Harare, is the most affordable options for prosthetics and mobility devices.
In the afternoon, I met with Rejoice Timire, the head of the Disabled Women’s Support Organization (DWSO). Our meeting took place in an internet cafe which Rejoice uses as a base of operations to keep overhead costs to a minimum. With over 5,000 members, DWSO is an active advocacy organization for women’s rights and disability rights in Zimbabwe, working with both communities to amplify its voice. DWSO was one of the disabled people’s organizations in Zimbabwe that successfully pushed for Zimbabwe’s accession to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Now, the DPOs must push for localization and implementation of the CRPD by the Department of Social Welfare, the focal point for the CRPD.
In the past, Rejoice and DWSO members participated in a peer support outreach program at the local hospitals. The program focused on persons who suffered from spinal injuries and other traumatic injuries and sought to help them understand and accept their condition, to “welcome them to our world,” as Rejoice described it. Due to funding, this worthy program has been discontinued.
Disabled Women’s Support Organization conducts awareness raising activities, one of the largest will be next month’s Disability Explore which is attended by members of Parliament and organized with assistance from the Disability Desk in the President’s office.
“What is your project?” asked a disabled war veteran. He wore a very sharp-looking fedora and wanted to know how my trip to Zimbabwe would help him and the thousands of landmine survivors and persons disabled by conflict in his country.
“I am here to learn,” I responded, “To listen to you and communicate to others what you tell me.”
Yesterday I arrived in Zimbabwe, one of the most mine-affected countries in Africa. I am here to document and share what I learn about landmines and the challenges faced by landmine survivors. The encounter with the war veteran and five others was today’s highlight. The five men and one woman ranged in age from thirty to sixty and had come to the Department of Social Services to access rehabilitation services provided by the government. One of the men had traveled 500 kilometers, another 400 and they would only be in Harare for one or two days. Out in the rural areas, specialized services for persons with disabilities are often unavailable so one must travel to the larger cities to get rehabilitation services or prosthetic devices. I was not allowed to take photos in the government building; but had I done so you would have seen a handsome and pleasant group who were kind enough to give me their time.
They wanted to be empowered. A person who uses crutches and travels 500 kilometers to seek out assistance on the third floor of a building whose elevators are out of order is already independent and self-reliant. He can be a role model to others and, if the structures are in place, part of a group of empowered survivors. The youngest of the group told me that there are maybe six or seven others in his home village and meeting other veterans is easier in this office in Harare; everyone who comes to this office is in a similar situation and if these six people had only just met, I could not tell. There is an opportunity here for peer support and psycho-social support that would be empowering. My host for the afternoon recognizes this opportunity and spoke about forming groups of veterans for this purpose.
I listen. I share what I learn. That is my project.
Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram continues this month and with it numerous stories accusing the Islamists of landmine use. The fighting in Mali and Somalia also continues with reports of injuries and usage by rebel groups. In more positive news, Mozambique continues its progress towards mine-free status and Zambia’s president personally acquainted himself with the situation faced by survivors. And in a classic piece of bad news / good news, Egypt announced new support for mine clearance in the northwestern deserts while also announcing new use by its army in the Sinai peninsula.
Let’s start with the following premise: I do not trust Nigeria’s military spokesman, Maj Gen Chris Olukolade. Olukolade’s official pronouncements dismiss Boko Haram’s fighting prowess and consistent accuse them of human rights violations. Yes, Boko Haram are awful and have committed many abuses, but if they are so bad and so weak, why has it taken so long for the Nigerian government to move against them and why are Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian soldiers needed to assist Nigeria’s troops, both the formal army and the informal vigilante groups? As such, I’ve paid more attention to articles and reports that cite other sources when it comes to landmine use in northeastern Nigeria and the neighboring countries.
The Sambisa forest campaign stalled early in the month when three members of the local vigilante force were killed by a landmine. After the blast, all Nigerian forces withdrew in advance of a more coordinated assault that would include Chadian forces (All Africa). With the assault underway, allied forces were able to liberate many of the women and girls who had been captured by Boko Haram. Unfortunately, the logistics of that liberation failed several of the women as some were crushed by military vehicles and three were killed by a landmine as they walked out of Sambisa and as many as 15 others were injured by mines (All Africa; New York Daily News). As the offensive in Sambisa continued, a Nigerian soldier was killed and two others injured by a landmine (All Africa). Meanwhile, in Cameroon, villagers spotted Boko Haram members plant homemade landmines in the roadways (Cam-Pedia).
Mines placed near the New Dawn School in Sirte, Libya were cleared by the 166 battalion (Al Wasat) and in Benghazi, mines were cleared from a local chocolate factory (Al Wasat). In Derna, one of the front lines in a war that whose actors continues to increase, two landmine blasts killed four people. Two civilians triggered the initial explosion and then two soldiers triggered the second when they investigated the initial blast (KUNA).
In Mukumbura, the HALO Trust and government of Japan celebrated the conclusion of the mine clearance project in Mashonaland Central Province. The project cleared a thousand landmines from 180,000 square meters and will allow free movement across the border with Zimbabwe and increased agricultural production (HALO Trust; News Day).
The government of Sudan declared itself short of financial resources and announced that US $91 million would be needed to clear all of the landmines that remain in the country (KUNA).
President Edgar Lungu announced that his government was developing a strategic plan to assist landmine survivors in the country. As part of that effort, Lungu called on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct a survey of survivors to identify those who might be supported by the plan (ZNBC). These remarks were made during Lungu’s visit to Ikeleng’I where he met many survivors and talked with them about their needs. Lungu re-affirmed that all known landmines have been cleared in Zambia, but also noted that other explosive remnants of war may remain from areas used by various liberation forces during their wars against the colonial powers of Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Assistance for survivors will include prosthetics and income-generating activities (Daily Mail).
Since 2002, Angola has cleared and destroyed over 400,000 anti-personnel landmines and nearly 200,000 anti-tank landmines and over 3 million other explosive remnants of war (All Africa). In Bie Province, almost 10,000 mines have been cleared over that period, 80% of which were anti-personnel mines (All Africa). Near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Norwegian Peoples Aid has cleared 43,000 square meters of land in Zaire province and another 450,000 meters are expected to be cleared by the end of the year (All Africa). In southern Cunene province, the National Demining Institute destroyed over a thousand pieces of unexploded ordnance including landmines (All Africa). Mine clearance in Huambo province has doubled in in 2015 from the pace seen in 2014 as over 81,000 square meters have been cleared since January compared to less than 39,000 over the same period in 2014 (All Africa).
To support its demining efforts, Angola trained 23 individuals to serve as quality management / quality assurance experts (All Africa).
Also in Angola, an expedition funded by the National Geographic Society launched to map and explore the headwaters of the Okavango River, the main river in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. The Cuito river which feeds into the Okavango lies in southeastern Angola’s minefields which are only just being cleared. However, as expedition leader Steve Boyes noted, as the HALO Trust clears land, Angolans used the newly cleared land for cassava cultivation which can damage the rivers’ ecology. So while the landmines delayed development, there is now an urgency to put in place land use regulations and practices that would preserve the Okavango Delta (National Geographic).
A long time ago, I read a piece entitled, “Not everything that goes boom is a landmine.” In Somalia this month several explosions were blamed on “landmines” but in reading the reports, I believe the explosives used were not mines.
A landmine exploded as a cattle herd entered a minefield in Kef, on the border with Algeria, where Tunisia has been battling Islamist militants. No injuries were reported and Tunisia troops helped the shepherd and his herd out of the minefield (All Africa).
Over the last 15 years, over 300 people have been killed or injured by landmines from the country’s Apartheid era, most in the Kvango region near the Angolan border. In April two people were killed and two more injured by an explosive device. In response, the national police have launched a mine awareness campaign (Namibian Sun). The Namibian Defence Force also took part in an explosive ordnance disposal training hosted by the United States Navy (All Africa).
In Yumbis near the Somalia border, Al Shabaab forces staged an ambush using a landmine which injured four police officers and when other officers responded, a gun battle broke out. Al Shabaab greatly exaggerated the impact of the assault claiming to have killed dozens of police, but none of the police were killed in the initial attacks (All Africa). Within a couple of days, two of the officers injured in the mine blast succumbed to their injuries (Citizen News).
The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is the deadliest current operation with 35 peacekeepers killed since the start of the mission in 2013, 15 of whom were killed by mines (Vice News). Responding to the attacks in northern Mali, the US State Department updated its travel warning to include reports on landmines and other dangers (State Department). Those attacks continued in May: two peacekeepers were injured by a landmine in the Mopti region (MINUSMA) and three more were wounded by a mine on the Teherdge – Timbuktu road (Vice News). Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the second attack (News 24).
The government of Japan donated demining equipment to help build residual explosive detection capacity in the country’s police force. Once Mozambique declares itself mine-free later this year, the country will no longer need international mine action operators for mine clearance, but other explosive remnants of war may remain in the country so the ability of the police to respond to reports will be welcome (All Africa).
The government of South Sudan accused rebels loyal to ousted Vice President Riek Machar of using landmines to prevent the army from attacking Machar’s home town of Leer (The Insider). South Sudan’s regional mine risk officer reported at least five landmine incidents in Central, Eastern and Western Equatoria States (Radio Easter).
The US State Department issued a new travel warning for Guinea-Bissau describing “thousands of landmines” across the country, highlighting the risk in rural areas north of Bissau (State Department). Guinea-Bissau has declared itself free of anti-personnel landmines so these mines could be anti-tank mines.
3,000 landmines, 90% anti-personnel, were cleared from Algeria’s borders in April. These mines date back to the liberation war with the French (APS).
A family traveling near the city of Smara struck a landmine killing the mother and injuring the father and two children. The father and son were sent to one hospital, the daughter another for their treatment (Adala UK).
The government of Egypt, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced millions of dollars in new money to support clearance of the 17 million landmines that pollute Egypt’s northwestern desert, site of the World War II battle of El Alamein. Since 1982, those mines have killed or injured more than 8,000 people and hinder all development of the region. The clearance and investment will save lives and enable the construction of thousands of houses to reduce over-crowding in Cairo (Daily News Egypt). Already the government has cleared 95 thousand acres of the El Alamein battlefield (Egypt Independent) and the government is procuring equipment to clear additional mines. With these investments, Egypt could complete its landmine clearance in the northwestern desert in three years (All Africa). Egyptian military sources also released a report documenting arms and explosives, including landmines, seized from militant rebels (Defense Ministry) and blamed the death of four Bedouins in Sinai province from an anti-tank landmine on those same militants (Washington Post). And yet, in almost the same breath, the Egyptian army announced a new plan to “entrap” militants in Sinai using newly laid landmines around military checkpoints. The plan has already claimed the lives of two militants who tried to attack a post in Sheikh Zuwayed city (Cairo Post). Donors to Egypt’s demining activities should take a strong stance against any new mine usage in Egypt before they are asked to help clear those mines too.
Michael P. Moore
Moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org
June 14, 2015