Blogging Angola: Why we are here – MAG and a school in a minefield

Demining allows development.  Before schools can be built or crops can be planted, the mines must be cleared.  MAG anticipates another 25 million square meters of land in Moxico province will still need to be cleared at the end of this year.  Until that work is done, Angola cannot fulfill its destiny.

In Maputo at the 2014 Review Conference of the Mine Ban Treaty, the countries that have joined the Treaty, including Angola, committed to making a landmine-free world by 2025.  This would be a very good thing and in a future post I will explore what it will take for Angola to meet that target, but a mine-free world is not an end point in and of itself.  A mine-free world allows everything that we might take for granted in the United States to happen: houses to be built, land to be used, paths to be taken – life to happen.  And it starts with mine-free communities.

Our merry party has grown: the Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy, Connie, and the Dutch Ambassador to Angola, Willem, have joined up and Connie will be with us for the rest of the trip.  Willem comes with a security detail provided by the Angolan national police which adds another four people (who come with a police truck and siren which they have mercifully not used yet).  We are in Luena, capital of Moxico province which had been a UNITA stronghold during the civil war and was where Jonas Savimbi was killed in 2002, effectively ending the conflict. Luena is a planned city which has never caught up to the plan, but the wide boulevards and Portuguese architecture are appealing for casual strolls.

Photo 4-01 MAP

From Cuito Cuanavale to Luena

MAG has been working in Moxico province since 1994 and done an awful lot in that time.  Like NPA and HALO, they are operating at lower capacity than in the past,  but with new leadership in country and increased attention from the headquarter’s fundraising team, they are hoping to turn it around.  And be able to hand over more cleared minefields to the community.

Today we are in Lingonga minefield and visiting the Calapo school which had been built on the minefield after MAG cleared.  Calapo is near a river and along the main road out of Luena.  During the civil war, the bridge was a strategic point and the Angolan army laid mines along both sides of the river.  In 2008, a government demining team cleared the roadway and the space for the bridge, but the minefields along the river were left mostly intact.  MAG started working on the site in 2014 as the river is a major water collection point and while we were there we could see several people washing their clothes in the river just a few yards from the bridge.  They were now safe to do as MAG had cleared all of the mines on the southern side of the river and had begun work on the northern side of the river.  The minefields on the south side of the bridge are called Lingonga East and Lingonga West.  Lingonga West had been further divided into the Alpha and Bravo minefields.  The Bravo minefield, where the Calapo school had been built, was handed over to the community in 2015.  Today we were handing over the Lingonga West-Alpha minefield and the Lingonga East minefield.

Photo 4-02 Panorama

Panorama shot of the Lingonga minefields

We did the usual minefield tour with MAG: briefing, don the PPE gear, walk the minefield  and blow some stuff up, but for the me the draw was to see the end product, what could be done once a minefield had been cleared.  Moxico’s vice governor told us that this area had been prioritized for clearance by the local government as the population was growing from refugees returning from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angolans returning to Moxico.  The Brigadier told us that in 1986, when he was serving in the army in this area, there were no people living here (the Brigadier was part of the engineering corps which laid the landmines in the minefields that MAG was clearing; the Brigadier was able to draw maps from memory that have proven useful to MAG).

After the tour, we headed to Calapo school.  The students and the community came out to greet us.

Photo 4-03 Handover

The community and students of Calapo school

The school has 6 teachers and 300 students who attend classes from 8 am to 3 pm with an hour’s break for lunch.  If the minefields had not been cleared and the school been built, those same children would have gone to a two-room school compared to the 14 classrooms they have now.  The local administration has also secured new school books and desks to fill the classrooms.

Photo 4-04 School

School supplies, a classroom full of students and the dedication plaque

And even though the landmines around the school have been cleared, the school bell – the back half of an air-dropped bomb that did not explode – is a constant reminder to the community that the school grounds were once a battlefield.  (Another school we saw nearby had its bell made from the metal rims of a truck wheel.)

Photo 4-05 Bell

Half of a bomb makes up the Calapo school’s bell

During the handover ceremony, MAG’s technical field manager, a burly South African who goes by “H” and lost an arm to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, recalled that when he and his team first came to the Lingonga minefields in 2013, “We promised you we will finish [demining] the area and today, I promise you we are finished with this side of the river.”  MAG cleared 110 anti-personnel mines from the grounds where the school stands, an area of 95,000 square meters.  H also told the assembled parents, community leaders and regional administrators, “We are now working to clear the other side of the river [of landmines].” The minefields on the north side of the river are well known to the community, a boy having lost his life in one of the fields a few years earlier.

In gratitude, the school children, dressed in their uniforms despite it being a Saturday, sang the welcoming song on our arrival and departure.  You can hear the song on YouTube here .

Photo 4-06 Next Generation

A generation I hope will never know the fear of landmines

This is why we clear landmines.  These children were born after the end of the war and they should not have to live with its after effects: Angola’s war should be part of its history, not its present.

Michael P. Moore

June 26, 2016

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org

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