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.

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