The Month in Mines, May 2014

The ongoing conflicts in Tunisia, Somalia and Mali provide regular reminders of the fact that despite the near universal ban on landmines, mines are still in use in warfare.  Rebel movements are the most frequent users of mines, with only a couple of countries (none in Africa) still admitting use.  In addition to the three countries mentioned, rebels in Nigeria have also been accused of using landmines.  However, landmines are also part of the long shadow of war as we shall see in reports from Zimbabwe, Angola and Somalia.



Nigeria declared itself landmine-free several years ago but the emergence of Boko Haram as a rebel group in the north and east of the country may herald new landmine use in the country.  In April, Boko Haram kidnapped over two hundred girls from their school in Borno state and continue to hold them despite the internet campaign, #BringBackOurGirls.  Boko Haram was rumoured to be holding the girls in Sambisa Forest and the kidnappers have used landmines to protect their positions in the forest. In response, the Nigerian army has mobilized its engineering brigades in addition to combat units (All Africa; All Africa).



The battle for control of Mount Chaambi and the Kasserine region on the Tunisia-Algeria border continues with little end in sight.  An operation begun in April concluded early in the month of May and “several landmines were discovered and destroyed” in the process (All Africa).  However, later in the month, two soldiers were killed and four others injured by a landmine on Mount Chaambi as their convoy travelled along a mountain path (All Africa; All Africa).  The mines in use on Mount Chaambi are not the mass-produced landmines commonly seen in military stockpiles but artisanal mines or booby traps which, because they are victim-activated, are also banned by the Mine Ban Treaty.  Because these artisanal mines are low in metal content, they cannot be detected by normal mine-sweeping equipment so the area will require some time to fully clear of all mines once the Tunisian government has full control (All Africa).



Landmines in Senegal’s Casamance region are contributing to food insecurity despite the Casamance’s history as the nation’s breadbasket.  Farmlands not polluted by landmines have become salinized due to overuse and ongoing insecurity due to the 30-year rebellion in the region hampers transport of humanitarian aid (All Africa).  In response to the loss of agricultural land, many former farmers have turned to illegal logging of the hardwood forests in the Casamance.  Illegally harvested wood is transported to the Gambia for export to other countries, of which China is suspected to be one of the largest buyers.  Illegal logging operations also brave landmines as many of the forests have been mined to protect rebel encampments or simply to hamper movement (All Africa).



In Angola’s Cunene Province the Angolan army and mine action center are increasing their efforts to clear landmines to promote housing and enable the free flow of goods and livestock.  Already 1.3 million square meters of land has been cleared in the province, but much more is to be done in this heavily mine-affected region (All Africa).  In Huambo Province, 11,000 square meters of roads and their shoulders have been cleared of mines so far this year.  In the process, deminers found anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines including one which prevented access to the local television station (All Africa).

Landmine clearance is a priority for development projects in Angola.  With plans to repair and rebuild 4,500 kilometers of roads (enough to travel from Washington, DC to San Francisco, California; or Maputo, Mozambique to Mogadishu, Somalia), deminers must first survey and clear the right-of-ways of any landmines to ensure the safety of construction crews and travellers (Macau Hub).



With the improving security situation in portions of Somalia, one of the greatest risks of landmine injury comes from returning refugees and displaced persons who are not aware of the locations of minefields.  The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and the office of the mayor of Mogadishu have partnered to raise awareness about landmines and other explosive remnants of war through billboards and mine risk education sessions at schools, markets and hospitals with half a million Somalis receiving mine risk education to date (RBC Radio).  UNMAS is also working with the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force to train the peacekeepers on mine clearance and disposal in areas where the peacekeepers are deployed (All Africa).  In a very busy month for UNMAS, the UN agency also convened a Victim Assistance and Disability Working Group meeting in Mogadishu to assess the needs of landmine survivors and other persons with disabilities in Somalia. Among the recommendations from the meeting was increased advocacy to reduce the stigma against disability as well as assistance for socio-economic reintegration (Somali Current; Somaliland Sun).

Unfortunately, the continuing need for landmine clearance and victim assistance in Somalia was underscored by several landmine incidents.  In Bakol region, two people were killed and many others injured by a landmine that targeted government forces.  Security forces also opened fire immediately after the blast which may have increased the number of casualties (AMISOM Media Monitoring / Radio Goobjoog).  In the Galgadud region of central Somalia, a boy was killed and two others injured while playing football in the open ground near the border between Ethiopia and Somalia.  The boys, all between 7 and 10 years of age, were mourned by the national, regional and continental football federations and the commissioner of the town where the blast occurred called for landmine clearance (RBC Radio; All Africa; All Africa).  Also in Mogadishu, the Commander-in-Chief of the Somali National Army escaped an assassination attempt when a landmine damaged two cars traveling in his convoy on the way to the Ministry of Defence.  While the Commander-in-Chief was not injured, some of his security detail sustained minor injuries (All Africa; All Africa).

Meanwhile, the presence of landmines in Somalia has hindered past attempts at gaining an accurate census of the country’s population (All Africa); the extent of landmine contamination in some parts of the country is so great that a mine detonated in a pile of trash outside a government building when the sanitation service set the garbage on fire (AMISOM Media Monitoring, Somaliland Sun; All Africa).


Western Sahara

In Madrid, Spain the International Campaign against the Wall of the Moroccan Occupation in Western Sahara was launched.  The wall or Berm divides the Western Sahara territory and has an estimate 7 million landmines, approximately 15% of all landmines on the African continent, which have killed or injured hundreds of people over the last three decades (All Africa).



The HALO Trust has cleared its 1,000th landmine in Zimbabwe after less than six months of work in the country.  With an estimate 1.5 to 1.8 million mines, much work remains, but this is an excellent start (Star Africa).

Last year an anti-tank landmine exploded in a Harare suburb killing six people including the traditional healer who tampered with the landmine.  At the coroner’s inquest into the incident, one of the witnesses blamed the blast on the healer’s efforts to extract red mercury from the mine.  Two stories, one in the Zimbabwe Herald and the other from Nehanda Radio both wrongly and recklessly reported this as fact.  There is no such thing as red mercury and by continuing to write about it without correcting this hoax, these media outlets are missing the opportunity to educate the public.  Too many people have died in Zimbabwe from attempts to extract this mythical substance and it needs to end.  We hope that the coroner correctly identifies red mercury as a hoax in his report and discourages future attempts to tamper with landmines and other pieces of ordnance in the false pursuit of the substance (All Africa; Nehanda Radio).



The United States signed a long term lease with the government of Djibouti to extend the presence of the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa, part of the US Army Command Africa (AFRICOM), at Camp Lemonnier.  Among its activities, the Task Force does provide demining training to African militaries (All Africa).



In separate incidents, three United Nations peacekeepers from Senegal were injured by a landmine in the northern town of Kidal; a French soldier was killed by an undetermined explosive, also near Kidal; and near Timbuktu two employees of the Norwegian Relief Council were killed by a landmine.  All of the devices were recently laid in the roadways by “militant Islamist groups” in northern Mali “to hurt opposition troops” (Reuters; Global Post).


Michael P. Moore

June 11, 2014