A United Africa Against Cluster Munitions

An Africa united against Cluster Munitions would be a very powerful, and welcome, partner in the fight against these insidious weapons.

Landmine and Cluster Munition Blog

Michael P. Moore, Landmines in Africa, and Monitor Victim Assistance Team Editor.

Many think of Lebanon or Laos when cluster munitions are mentioned, or maybe Cambodia or Kosovo. However, we should also think about Sudan, the area of Western Sahara, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, South Sudan, Angola, Eritrea, and Sierra Leone — all countries that have lost citizens to cluster munitions. There are Zambia, Chad and Nigeria — countries that have condemned usage. The Balkans, Southeast Asia and the Middle East have had the headlines on cluster munitions, but Africa is also where the story of cluster munitions is told.

In 2008, Zambia hosted a major regional conference to build solidarity and discuss a common position on the Oslo Process that led to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. In 2013 Zambia hosted the Fourth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention, reaffirming that country’s leadership in the Convention…

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A Day in the HALO Life

During my recent visit to Zimbabwe I had the incredible opportunity to accompany the HALO Trust to its worksite on the Mozambican border, a four hour drive from Harare.  With a team of 150 people, many of them locally-hired deminers, but also a large number of experienced deminers who had cleared mines in Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Falkland Islands and elsewhere.  There is also an all-female section of deminers.  Each month the team works 22 days straight and then has eight days off; almost all of the team lives in one of two camps (some of the locally-hired crew go home, but for the first several cycles even the locally-hired deminers stayed in camp).  The team starts early and works in 30 minute shifts followed by 10 minute breaks to help maintain concentration.

Mine clearance in this part of the country is simplified by the fact that most of the mines were laid in a very regular and predictable pattern as seen below. In 1998 – 2000, Koch MineSafe cleared the Cordon Sanitaire minefields (at the top of the picture) and the two rows of Ploughshares (a directional fragmentation mine placed upon a stake at roughly head height) closest to the Cordan Sanitaire.  That left the reinforcement minefield and the row of Ploughshares closest to the reinforcement minefield.  In the middle of the reinforcement minefield, marked by the solid line with “x”s on it, was a barbed wire fence.  All that remains of the Ploughshares and the barbed wire fence are the stakes in the ground that held the mines and fence posts.  These stakes help HALO determine where the mines are because the mines really do follow the pattern in the diagram.

00, Minefield

HALO found these four mines (the white stakes show the location of cleared mines) in the exact pattern described by the Rhodesian mine layers; when the team finds one mine, they can generally predict the location of the rest.

01, Pattern

Finding the Ploughshares stakes also helps as each Ploughshare was protected by two “keepers,” anti-personnel mines that prevented tampering with the Ploughshares.  Through fires and animal accidents, all of the Ploughshares have been detonated but many of the stakes remain.

02, Stake

However, the stakes can also serve as good digging tools and many have been collected from the minefields despite repeated warnings about the risk:

03, Stake

Despite the relatively good conditions for landmine clearance, a lot of work is needed because most remain buried and covered by underbrush.  A few mines have been found on the surface, like this one, but they are rare.

04, mine

The work day starts very early with a morning reveille and parade to go over issues and remind everyone to take care.  The day I arrived a deminer had been bitten by a snake so the next day’s reveille was an opportunity to tell the team that he was fine and would be returning to work soon.

05, Reveille

As soon as the light is good for working, the team is in the field to be able to end the work day before the heat of the mid and late afternoon.  To get from the camp to the work sites, the teams travel in vehicles that had been acquired from a German safari company:

06, Heading out

In the field, the deminers mark out their work areas using red stakes and string.  Some work horizontally (covering several meters of width and less than a meter depth), others work vertically, one square meter at a time.  In this photo, the deminer is sweeping a horizontal work area with a metal detector set to the highest level of sensitivity.  Before he could start the sweep with the mine detector, he first had to clear all of the brush, bushes and trees from the area.

07, Sweeping

When the detector indicates the presence of metal, which could be a mine, shrapnel from a Ploughshare, an old piece of barbed wire or any number of other items, the deminer marks the spot with wooden tab:

08, Marking

For my benefit, the deminer pointed out the red wooden tab:

09, Marking

The wooden tab is then “boxed” in and the deminer preps the ground for digging.

10, Prepping

The deminer then digs out the ground in front of the “box” to a depth of 20 centimeters.  This is the depth required in HALO’s standard operating procedures and corresponds to the maximum depths at which HALO has found buried mines in this area.

11, Digging

In areas with lots of metal contamination (like where a Ploughshare exploded and the shrapnel has spread out), the deminer may need to fully excavate the work area because the metal detectors cannot identify a single signal.

12, More digging

When a mine is found, the deminer will mark the location using a red area and call over one of the section leaders.  Because of the instability of the South African landmines that the Rhodesians used, section leaders are responsible for “lifting” the mines from the ground.

13, Pointing

The section leader patiently digs the mine out of the ground.  Here’s one showing off his work:

14, Cleared

All cleared mines are then collected in a safe location for destruction later in the day.

15, Collected

Once a mine is cleared, HALO places a white stake where the mine was found.  Each white stake lists the date the mine was cleared, the type of mine found and the depth of the mine below the surface.

16, Staked

When the deminer declares an area cleared of metal, the section leader will re-scan the area with a metal detector.  If the deminer has missed any metal, the deminer receives a warning.  Too many warnings and the deminer is dismissed.

17, Checking

At the end of each work day, all of the mines cleared that day are destroyed.  The HALO Trust does not have approval from the Zimbabwean government to import or use explosives for demolition so it burns each mine.  Each mine is placed in a metal box filled with flammable material, in this case sawdust soaked in flammable liquid.

18, Burning

Section leaders ignite all of the mines at once.  Eight were burned on the afternoon I was there.

19, BurningIn the course of the burning, the explosive material burns away but the detonator still explodes in a somewhat unsatisfying flash and puff of smoke:

20, Burning21, PuffAfter the mines are destroyed, the teams pile back into the safari vehicles and head back to camp.

22, Heading back

At camp, the deminers get some lunch and relax.  A television was brought in for the 2014 World Cup and while I was there the teams watched highlights from Copa America football tournament in Chile.

23, Back in Camp

All in a day’s (very good) work.

Many thanks to Tom Dibb and the entire team at HALO-Zimbabwe for letting me tag along. To learn more about HALO’s work in Zimbabwe, please visit their website.

Michael P. Moore

July 20, 2015

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org


All-too-brief visit with MAG in the Democratic Republic of Congo

I’ve enjoyed a strong relationship with MAG over the years having been there at the creation of MAG America and had many chances to interact with their staff in Washington, DC and Manchester, UK.  I’ve also visited MAG’s project office in Vietnam a decade or so ago.  I’ve written pieces for MAG America on Angola and Mine Risk Education, but Friday was my first time visiting a MAG project in Africa.  My day job had sent me to Kinshasa and because the work day ends early on Friday, I was able to meet with MAG-DRC’s Operations Manager, JP Botha, and learn about MAG’s programs in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

MAG has been here in the Congo for more than a decade, starting out with humanitarian mine action work in the aftermath of Congo’s brutal civil wars that ended in 2002.  Over time, MAG has been able to broaden its scope of work in the country to include addressing small arms and light weapons and helping to secure arms depots.

The humanitarian mine action work continues and with the 2013 – 2014 landmine and explosive remnants of war (ERW) contamination survey completed, the tasks can be focused.  MAG contributed information on Equateur and Kasai provinces to the survey; other organizations provided information on other regions. MAG’s multi-task team in Equateur province are now working to clear the landmines and ERW (especially cluster munitions) identified in the survey. Another multi-task team is operating in Katanga province to clear cluster munitions strikes and battle area clearance.  MAG would like to see additional teams in the field if funds allow as the extent of contamination is very great as can be seen in the map below.  Multi-task teams are capable of clearing all explosive remnants of war and in DRC the contamination from cluster bombs, mortars and other pieces of unexploded ordnance is much greater than the landmine contamination.

From the 2013-2014 survey, landmine and ERW contamination in the Democratic Republic of Congo

From the 2013-2014 survey, landmine and ERW contamination in the Democratic Republic of Congo

MAG also conducts landmine and ERW risk education through its community liaison teams and in partnership with the Congolese Red Cross.  Using visual materials like the poster below and information sessions, the community liaison teams work to reduce the behaviors that lead to casualties, especially tampering with unexploded ordnance (the poster, designed for use in DRC, shows a mortar bomb).

Mine Risk Education Poster used in DRC.

Mine Risk Education Poster used in DRC.

The small arms and arms management tasks aim to reduce hazards to civilians from poorly kept ammunition and explosives and the proliferation of small arms that occurred during the wars in the country.  In the capital, Kinshasa, MAG installed a cutting machine designed to cut small arms rendering them useless as weapons.  Capable of cutting up to a thousand arms a month, the machine is the only large scale facility of its type in the country; other smaller machines exist, but cannot do large numbers of weapons in a short period of time.

MAG is the only organization in the country authorized by the government to conduct bulk demolition of unexploded and abandoned ordnance.  The week before I arrived MAG destroyed 15 tons of explosives near Kinshasa.  Two teams, one in Kanaga in Western Kasai and the other in Goma, North Kivu, have a target of destroying 250 tons of explosives in a twelve month period.  They completed 80% and Mr. Botha is confident they will complete the rest before the end of August when the current support for the activity concludes.  And while 250 tons is an awful lot of explosives to destroy, the need is much greater and MAG is seeking support to place a third team in the field to increase capacity.

In addition to destroying excess or unstable weapons, MAG is working with the Congolese army to build and refurbish ammunition depots to prevent explosions like the March 2012 blast at an arms dump in Brazzaville, just across the river from Kinshasa, which killed more than 200 people and injured another 2,000.  There are MAG-built armories in Kisangani and Bukavu and MAG has also created mobile armories using specially-designed shipping containers. MAG is looking at the possibility of building another depot in Lubumbashi.

Thanks to the team at MAG America for arranging the visit and to JP Botha for showing so much hospitality on such short notice.  If the opportunity comes up again, I hope to visit some of field work.

To learn more about MAG’s work in DRC, please visit their website.

Michael P. Moore

July 17, 2015

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org


Mine Risk Education and Awareness in Zimbabwe

A warning to all

A warning to all

For almost forty years, landmines have marked Zimbabwe’s borders. While some of those mines have been cleared, over a million remain.   Communities on the Zimbabwe-Mozambique border have lived with these mines and each days thousands of people accept the risk and pass through the minefields to graze their livestock, tend their crops, collect water and even go to school.  The fencing that marked the minefields were taken down long ago, the metal used for other purposes.  All that remains are the mines.

With over 2,000 reported human casualties and 120,000 livestock casualties, people living in the border communities are aware of the mines and know their location.  Despite the danger, they accept the risk.

A herd of cows cross the minefield.

A herd of cows cross the minefield.

Outside of the border regions, many Zimbabweans don’t know about landmines.  Several individuals I spoke with believed that all of the mines had been cleared and in the interior of the country that is true.  The only landmines left in Zimbabwe are along the border and there is little or no UXO contamination as is found in other countries.  The localized nature of the landmine problem makes it easier to address, but also means that attention from the country as a whole has drifted.

Landmine clearance in Zimbabwe is progressing steadily at the moment, but could take another 30 years or more at the current levels of investment.  With that timeline, a robust mine risk education program for the border communities, focusing on behavior change and reporting rather than awareness, is needed to minimize casualties until every mine is cleared.

In my opinion, more mine risk education is needed in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Mine Action Center (ZIMAC) is able to provide mine risk education (MRE) thanks to support from the International Committee of the Red Cross.  However ZIMAC only provides MRE in mine-affected communities on an “emergency” basis when there is an increase in the number of casualties or when ZIMAC receives a report of a mine or piece of unexploded ordnance (UXO) outside of the border region.  ZIMAC does have an outreach program where they send representatives to regional agricultural fairs, but the number of beneficiaries is unclear. The humanitarian demining organizations, the HALO Trust and Norwegian Peoples Aid (NPA), have the capacity to provide MRE, but to do so would take staff away from landmine clearance and communities needed MRE can be hundreds of kilometers from current work sites.

One innovative response to this need is the proposed collaboration between the HALO Trust, the United States Embassy and the children’s literacy company, Happy Readers.  Happy Readers is a Harare-based company which has produced a series of children’s books aimed at improving English literacy in Zimbabwe by providing entertaining and culturally-appropriate materials for primary schools.  While Zimbabwe touts a 93% literacy rate, that figure is based upon the suspect belief that primary school enrollment constitutes functional literacy. Happy Readers’s research shows the true English literacy rate in rural Zimbabwean schools is much lower and leads to reduced professional opportunities later in life.

Using the HALO Trust’s expertise and financial support from the United States Embassy, Happy readers will produce a special volume of their children’s books focused on mine risk education.  The book will feature characters introduced in other stories and have a special section at the end with information about how to report landmines and additional mine risk messages aimed at adults.  In my conversations with Happy Readers and the HALO Trust, I understand that the proposed support from the Embassy may not cover the full costs of the volume, but Happy Readers are committed to the project all the same. I support this initiative and hope the international community can find a way to make up the balance of the costs.

A boy holds the picket from a Ploughshare mine. Each Ploughshare is protected by two buried landmines which he was lucky to avoid.

A boy holds the picket from a Ploughshare mine. Each Ploughshare is protected by two buried landmines which he was lucky to avoid.

Beyond what Happy Readers is doing, funding should be secured to enable ZIMAC, HALO Trust or NPA to provide mine risk education to border communities.  Again, the people living in the communities know about the risks, but they accept those risks.  I saw many people using well-worn paths across the minefields, but HALO Trust showed me several places where they had found landmines just a meter or two from the paths so communities need to be informed about the risks in places they think are safe.  Also, I saw a boy holding the stake from a Ploughshare mine and while all of the Ploughshare mines have been cleared, the landmine laid around the Ploughshares have not so people should be warned about metal scavenging in the minefields.  Lastly, minefield markers need to be verified from time to time.  Markers can be displaced by weather, animals or people and while doing so is a crime, there should be a system where the markers are checked and replaced if missing.