Blogging Luanda: Malanje and NPAPosted: June 22, 2016
Norwegian People’s Aid first began working in Angola in the 1990s. They are focused on the northwestern provinces of Malanje, Uige, Kwanza Norte and Zaire, three of which border the Democratic Republic of Congo. NPA is committed to helping Angola meet the objective of being landmine-free by 2025, but NPA’s current capacity is less than a third of what is was in 2008. At the current capacity, NPA would need 16 years to complete all known tasks. By doubling current capacity, NPA would complete those tasks in 8 years. NPA will likely complete mine clearance in Malanje province within the next year, a massive achievement. The US State Department and Embassy of Japan are the only current donors to NPA in Angola.
My first flight on a Cessna. I’m reminded of Bill Bryson’s abiding fear of such aircraft, but I found it to be relatively calm if a bit noisy. The haze and humidity over Luanda made looking out the window pretty much useless, but once we got into the interior the clouds cleared and we could make out the ground. We were following the railway almost due east, covering the miles with ease. A quick check-in at the hotel and then to the Norwegian People’s Aid office for a briefing. Our party includes Dr. Adriano and the Brigadier from CNIDAH, Dorches from the US Embassy, Stan Brown and Dennis Hadrick from the State Department and myself. Brent the pilot makes seven.
Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) has been working in Angola for 21 years and based in Malanje (the town and the province) for the last decade. NPA is responsible for the northwestern provinces of Malanje, Uige, Kwanza Norte and Zaire. Malanje is one of two provinces in Angola (Huambo is the other) that could have the distinction of being the first to be mine-free. That’s a race everyone wins.
NPA’s country leader in Angola, Vanja, is new having come from Croatia originally with stops in South Sudan and Ukraine in between. Joaquim is NPA’s number two with 16 years of experience and has been running the show for the last year. But there’s work to be done. According to Vanja the current capacity (about 100 staff, half of them deminers) would need 16 years to clear all of the known minefields in the four provinces. If the funding were increased and NPA could have 100 deminers on staff, NPA would only need 8 years to clear the remaining minefields. Unfortunately NPA’s trend line is heading in the wrong direction. In 2008 NPA had over 300 employees and triple the annual budget with funds coming from the Norwegian government, Norwegian oil companies and the US State Department. Now NPA’s funding comes almost solely from the US State Department with a small grant from the Japanese embassy. The crash in oil prices led to the end of support from the Norwegian petroleum sector. NPA has a proposal out to Switzerland’s Digger Foundation for a mine-clearance machine and the supporting costs, but have yet to hear one way or the other.
In addition to the formal briefing from NPA, we had a meeting with Malanje’s vice governor for economic affairs (each province has a governor and three vice-governors; the vice governor for social and political affairs typically holds the mine action portfolio, but he was on leave at the time of the meeting). The vice governor emphasized the role of demining in economic development, saying “We must declare the whole country clear of mines.” Specific to Malanje province the vice governor spoke about the economic opportunities to be found in the emerging tourism industry around the Kalandula Waterfalls (second or third-highest in Africa depending upon who you ask), “It is our wish to have this area declared free of mines,” and the benefits to local subsistence and commercial farming. He concluded his remarks by asking, “What do you need from the [provincial] government to achieve this objective?”
The vice governor also mentioned that a mine had exploded just two weeks ago not far from Malanje town when some farmers triggered it on the way to their fields (luckily no one was hurt). There is no formal reporting mechanism in Angola for landmine accidents in Angola and even though NPA covers four provinces, they only were aware of a single incident in Malanje province (and being absolutely fair, it is not NPA’s responsibility to track landmine incidents except insofar as it informs their prioritization and confirms the location of minefields; the government, either nationally or locally, should have a surveillance program in place. According to Dr. Adriano, the local office of CNIDAH should be monitoring for landmine incidents, but that is information that is clearly not reaching NPA and is not reported by the national office of CNIDAH). After the blast, no one seemed to know what happened to the victims or their families.
The recent explosion and the fact that farmers in at least one village are doing impromptu, “community” demining (and handed some 15 live landmines to NPA staff when NPA started clearance in the village) demonstrates the demand for agricultural land. From the airplane I saw evidence of slash and burn techniques in place (clouds of smoke and blackened fields) which suggest that more sustainable practices have yet to take hold. Agricultural extension agents could accompany demining teams to discuss improved techniques ahead of releases of land by the operators and reduce some of the pressure on the land and the clearance teams (in Mozambique I was told villagers were “nipping at the heels” of the deminers to get crops in to the ground; in Angola it sounds like the farmers aren’t that patient).
Day in the Minefields of Malanje:
The Norwegian People’s Aid team took us to three sites: two that had been completed and one still in progress. We started with the in-progress site, Carreira de Tiro, a wartime strategic point held first by the Cubans and then by the Angolan army, the FAPLA (now the FAA).
Carreira de Tiro is 8 kms from Malanje town is lies just below a ridge which overlooks the town. The mines were laid by FAPLA in 1986 as a defensive measure to protect the high ground. Now it is agricultural land and the ridge separates two small villages with lots of foot traffic between them along a rutted dirt road. The villagers knew about the minefield and the local administration asked NPA to clear the minefield on behalf of the nearly 1,000 families living in the village immediately below the ridge. Fortunately (miraculously), no injuries or accidents have been reported. NPA started working on the minefield about six weeks ago, using a MineWolf to create breech lanes and when the MineWolf encountered mines, NPA switched to manual demining.
To date, NPA has cleared 49,800 square meters of the 120,000 square meters in the hazardous area. With 19 deminers on site, NPA expects to complete all clearance activities within three months. During the clearance, NPA has found only anti-personnel mines, Russian-made MA 75s. Before NPA arrived, farmers prepping the fields had found 15 mines and handed these to a presumably surprised NPA team. The mines found by the farmers and those cleared by NPA are slated for demolition soon, but need to be transported to another location where a massed explosion can be safely contained.
The mines were laid in a single belt, approximately 1 meter apart and no mines have been found outside of that belt. The belt itself is cut by a farmer’s field full of cassava plants and along one of rows, a single mine was found. The farmers use hoes to create the rows and it is sheer luck that in building the row the farmer did not trigger a mine.
I was glad to see that our visit did not interrupt NPA’s work (although they did halt while we were walking the minefield) and the deminers were continuing their work and had uncovered five more mines which will need to be lifted and destroyed.
NPA did receive approval from the local police force to detonate four mines for show. Dorches, the US Embassy representative did the honors and got a pretty decent bang and puff of smoke.
Having seen what an active minefield clearance project looks like, NPA then took us to visit two cleared sites. The first, Camatende, was 15 kilometers from Malanje town and had been cleared a couple of year ago. A military outpost had been protected by a minefield that crossed a small dirt track. After the war, several people had been killed or injured trying to cultivate the land and NPA was asked to clear the minefield on behalf of the 30 or so families living in the area. NPA cleared the mined, finding 14 anti-personnel mines and returned the land to the community. Clearly grateful for NPA’s intervention, some forty of the 150 members of the community, led by community leader Jose Tchikeza, turned out to greet us and thank us in person with speeches and ululations.
The second site, in the village of Caculama, was much farther away, nearly an hour’s drive mostly on tarmac road. During the war, most of the residents of Caculama had been displaced and when they returned to their community, the presence of mines constrained their options for housing. Some 80 families had returned with nowhere to go and were putting pressure on the community that was there. The local administration contacted NPA who came and cleared the mines in just 44 working days using mechanical and manual means. 22 anti-personnel mines were destroyed in the process and those displaced families have been able to build 200 houses and are now engaged in subsistence farming in the surrounding fields. There were no speeches to greet us, but the youngest beneficiaries of NPA’s work were more than willing to pose for a photo.
This is a generation that won’t know the fear of landmines. This is a generation of hope for Angola. And a pretty cheeky bunch as well.
Tomorrow (the 22nd) we head to the HALO Trust’s working site in Cuito Cuanavale. We’ll make a brief stop in Menongue to re-fuel and meet with the local administration there.
Michael P. Moore
June 22, 2016
moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org