Life can be a minefield

Angola Huambo 038

We face multiple threats on our streets, but on International Mine Awareness Day it is worth reflecting on one of humanity’s cruelest and most enduring weapons. First used on a wide scale in World War II, landmines still kill or maim over 4000 people per year. I witnessed their threat on a visit to an Angolan minefield in 2009. Here is an extract from my diary.

“The blast-proof Perspex helmet and flak jacket felt unwieldy, but the dread weighed me down even more. Entering the minefield through a safe corridor lined with red and white posts bearing the skull and crossbones, adrenaline rushed after the thought that one step beyond the posts could be my last. I had accompanied the British Ambassador to a minefield 30 km from Angola’s second city of Huambo, where neat squares of pink government buildings contrasted with bombed out factories, roofless houses and bullet-pocked apartment blocks, testifying to a 55-day offensive by UNITA in 1993 that had left 10,000 people dead. We had come to observe the work of the HALO Trust, a British demining NGO that was immortalised in 1997 when Princess Diana donned their protective armour in front of the world’s media to meet with maimed victims and call for a ban on landmines. Within six months the Princess herself was dead and the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair, promised to ratify the Ottawa Convention banning the use of landmines by the first anniversary of her death.

After 15 years of demining, Angola remains the third most mined country in the world. During its thirty-year civil war, foreign forces lent explosives expertise to their faction of choice, laying some 15 million mines to secure military installations, communications, bridges and any other scrap of territory. On toilet stops during road trips, the fear of straying from the road invariably weighs more heavily than the embarrassment of being seen, with red and white painted trees reminding travellers of the dangers lurking beyond. Calvin, the square-jawed HALO Deputy Programme Manager in his crisply-pressed military fatigues, explained the painstaking process of reversing this mechanical curse: ‘firstly we sweep with metal detectors, then strim the grass, then sweep again, then excavate down by the side of a suspect object and work towards it before finally destroying it in a controlled explosion.’ All this to push the red and white posts back a few metres, and at a cost: up to $1000 to remove a mine bought for less than $30 and the loss of a deminer for every 5000 mines cleared.

Calvin guided the two British diplomats and their peculiar entourage through the labyrinth of cleared corridors: a local municipality head too glamorous for her dusty surrounds; a gaggle of journalists, film crews and photographers; and a tubby minder in a shiny silver suit several sizes too small who had attached himself to us after our courtesy call on Huambo’s governor. As we observed the deminers, indistinguishable in blue flak jackets and Perspex visors, bent over Strimmers, detectors or trowels, a group of local women, in colourful robes with babies bound to their backs and tubs of produce balanced on their heads, strode past us through the minefield. Running between their fields and village, this safe corridor illustrates how demining can reconnect lives. The journalists, awaking from the lethargy of a day spent covering us as we endlessly shook hands with health workers and village chiefs, now descended on the women in a flurry of flashing cameras and waving microphones. Startled at first, the women then patiently answered questions and accepted the limelight beamed from the cameras, seemingly immune to their heavy loads.”

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