Blogging Angola: Cuito Cuanavale – South African Tanks, Angolan Mines

Cuito Cuanavale is Angola’s Gettyburg, its Dien Bien Phu, the great nation-making battle.  The biggest tank battle on the African continent since World War II’s El Alamein, Cuito Cuanavale is the battle that broke Apartheid South Africa.  On one side was the Angolan army (FAPLA) supported by thousands of Cuban troops; on the other, the rebel group UNITA and hundreds of South African conscripts.  And since this was the Cold War, Angola was supported by Soviet money and materiel; South Africa and UNITA operated under US sponsorship.

In Angola’s far southeastern province of Kuando Kubango, Cuito Cuanavale was an otherwise nondescript spot on the map but after an attempt by FAPLA to destroy UNITA in the town of Mavinga, a South African counter-attack drove FAPLA 200 kilometers back to the high ground above Cuito Cuanavale with the Cuito River protecting FAPLA’s flank and rear.  The airstrip in Cuito Cuanavale allowed for rapid re-supply and convoys of hardware pounded down the road from Menogue.  FAPLA and the Cuban army, at the orders of Fidel Castro himself, decided to hold the line at Cuito Cuanavale and the mine-laying began in earnest.  There is perhaps a greater concentration of anti-tank mines here in Cuito Cuanavale than anywhere else in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The HALO Trust has been clearing landmines from Kuando Kubango province since 2002 and from Cuito Cuanavale since 2005.  Throughout Angola, HALO has cleared about 90,000 landmines, of those 50,000 came just from Kuando Kubango and of those 30,000 came from Cuito Cuanavale.  Cuito Cuanavale deserves its title as the most mined town in Africa and it was the next spot on our itinerary.

Photo 3-01 MAP

Itinerary: Malanje to Menongue; Menongue to Cuito Cuanavale

To get to Cuito Cuanavale and the HALO Trust working area, we flew from Malanje to Menongue, the capital of Kuando Kubango.  In Menongue we met with the vice governor and the local CNIDAH office.  The governor thanked the donors for their support and admitted, “There’s still a lot to be done,” to clear the remaining mines.  The provincial coordinator for CNIDAH showed us the operational map for the province.

Photo 3-02 MAP

CNIDAH’s operational map of Kuando Kubango province; Cuito Cuanavale is marked by the red rectangle

They use the map to monitor the activities of the operators, including government agencies, national NGOs and international NGOs.  The office documents demining, risk education, victim assistance and landmine accidents.  In 2015, just under 3 million square meters of land was cleared, removing over 4,000 mines and 2,000 pieces of UXO.  7,000 people received mine risk education and another 7,000 received some victim assistance services (with a population of just over 600,000, that means 1% of the province received victim assistance, a staggering total that I will be following up on).  There were also five landmine accidents which injured four people and destroyed one vehicle.  In 2013, there were 13 accidents which left one dead and eight injured.

From Menongue, we took a short hop flight to Cuito Cuanavale where the airstrip had been rebuilt to accommodate the annual celebration of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale on March 23.  Of course, the drainage around the new airstrip wasn’t done properly and during the first big rainstorm the run-off took out HALO’s camp, a couple of houses and the local church.  The drainage has been fixed and HALO’s camp has been re-located outside of town, next to the massive water and energy plant. In HALO’s map below the town name is at the end of the same airstrip and the minefields are marked in green (for cleared minefields) and red (for fields yet to be cleared).

Photo 3-03 MAP

The HALO Trust’s map of minefields around Cuito Cuanavale; Task 320 is marked by the yellow oval

The HALO team, led by Tony and Gerhard, showed us around Task 320, a minefield laid by the Angolan army after the battle.  Before the tour began, we had to don protective gear and sign the guestbook, which also recorded our blood types.

The task is nearly all anti-tank landmines with some anti-personnel mines as “keepers” to keep the anti-tank mines from being lifted.  Similar anti-tank mines had destroyed three South African tanks that are now the highlights of the tour of the battlefield.

Photo 3-04 Tank

A South African tank disabled by Angolan mines and abandoned during the battle of Cuito Cuanavale

Task 320 consists of two rows of mines between which the local villagers have started cultivating cassava.  There are paths that traverse the lines of mines from the small collection of houses down to the river.  In 1999, a person crossing the minefield triggered a mine and later died at the hospital in town.  By clearing the minefields, forty families will benefit, directly and indirectly, from increased agricultural land and safe passage through the area.

Photo 3-05 MAP

Hand drawn map of Task 320; the lines of mines are marked by the dashed red line; the community is circled in green; the site of the 1999 accident is marked by the yellow circle

The minefield itself is nasty, no other word for it. There are hundreds of anti-tank mines in the rows, some with anti-personnel mines nearby, many without.  Fortunately only a handful of unexploded shells have been found in the area, leaving most of the clearance fairly uncomplicated.  The sandy soil is easy to excavate as well.  But there are just so many of them.  In the picture below there are nine and many more just beyond.

Photo 3-06 9 Mines

Anti-tank mines laid by the Angolan army and waiting demolition by the HALO Trust

The anti-tank mines are not destroyed immediately as doing so would spread metal fragments throughout the site.  Fortunately, the weight of a human being won’t set off these mines so leaving them in the ground for a few days is not a problem.  The anti-tank mines are clearly marked and usually the sand is put back over them to reduce any temptation to tamper.

Photo 3-07 AT Mine

Marking an anti-tank landmine

At the end of the month, all of the anti-tank mines will be destroyed in a couple of days, leaving rather big holes.

Photo 3-08 Hole in the Ground

The crater left by the demolition of an anti-tank mine

Anti-personnel mines are destroyed the same day they are found.

Photo 3-09 AP Stake

Stake marking the location of a Russian-made MAI-75 anti-personnel mine; found and detonated on April 21, 2016


Living on the margins

Angola is home to Africa’s first female billionaire, Isabel dos Santos, but the majority of the people are on less than $2 per day.  The people by the minefield would probably feel like they hit the lottery to see $2 in a day.  Hardscrabble, eeking out an existence by subsistence farming with minefields limiting their ambitions.  But life goes on here.

Photo 3-10 Puppy

Because we could all use a photo of a napping puppy; this little one was behind a hut in the community near Task 320

The few families in the community (one could not call it a village) came out and greeted our party (which between the deminers, the local administrators, the Angolan soldiers and us, easily outnumbered the community members).

Photo 3-11 Community

Members of the community living near Task 320 and HALO employee Gerhard Zank, Programme Manager for Angola

Just across Cuito River from this community is the new airstrip, a new hotel, Chinese-run utility plants and the massive new battle memorial.  But the only visible investment in this community is the corrugated roofs, which the community members hold in place using Soviet recoilless rounds scrounged from the battlefield.

Photo 3-12 Roof munitions

Gerhard checking the Soviet munitions on the roof; they were full of sand

This task will be completed by the end of August.  At that time, HALO will need to assess its financial situation and decide how to proceed.  Kuando Kubango province won’t lack for mines if HALO chooses to continue to work in Cuito Cuanavale or elsewhere in the province.

Photo 3-13 Mavinga

Sign on the road to Mavinga

Only the first 40 kilometers of the road to Mavinga have been cleared; in that span 50 minimum metal anti-tank mines were found and dozens more would likely be found if one went looking.  South African laid minefields, which covered the retreat of the South African army from the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, make up a 30 kilometer-long barrier to the east of the town.  Beyond Mavinga, minefields can be found all the way to the Zambian and Botswanan borders. And these minefields are linked to just a brief period, maybe a year or so between 1987 and 1988, of Angola’s forty years of wars.  HALO has had mine-clearing activities in four provinces: Kuando Kubango, Bié, Huambo and Benguela; and survey work in Kwanza Sul and Huila with plans to survey Namibe and Cunene provinces. Those provinces have their own particular histories and related landmine contaminations.  The urban areas have been the focus of demining and the rural areas, like the community pictured above, will be the last to benefit.  In other words, those whose lives would be immediately improved by additional farmland and safe paths, are still waiting and will continue to wait without additional support for groups like the HALO Trust.  The battle ended nearly thirty years ago, and every March 23rd, the great and the good of Angola come to Cuito Cuanavale to celebrate it.  For the other 364 days of the calendar, the people of the minefields should be remembered and assisted.


Michael P. Moore

June 23, 2016

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org


One Comment on “Blogging Angola: Cuito Cuanavale – South African Tanks, Angolan Mines”

  1. Mitch says:

    MAI-75 is Romanian

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