A strange ”plant” grows at the end of a stake on the deserted road among the acacias ? a red triangle bearing a white skull with the words in Portuguese ”Danger, mines.”
There are 12 million of them, inherited from the 27-year civil war that has ravaged the country, one for every Angolan.
The 12 million people of the southern African country can now hope for an end to the violence following a ceasefire accord reached at the weekend in the eastern town of Lwena, capital of the eastern province of Moxico, where the ceasefire was signed, but still risk life and limb just going into their fields or out to cut firewood.
The mines are of both the anti-tank and anti-personnel variety and were buried by the Angolan armed forces and the rebels of the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (Unita).
They were buried on roadsides, around cities, airstrips, villages and the camps and positions successively occupied by the two sides.
In fact the mines are everywhere. But the distribution is unequal. Thus the Moxico province along with those of Bie and Malanje are the most heavily-mined, says Avindo Lopes, the Lwena-based head of a Norwegian mine-clearing non-governmental organisation, the NPA (Norwegian Aid).
”We try to concentrate on the minefields situated around the refugee camps,” Lopes said. Over the past few weeks, the Angolan army offensive which ended with the death of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi, pushed some 70Ã‚Â 000 people out of their villages towards Lwena.
The NPA is currently demining an area for newly-displaced people close to Mwacanica, on the banks of the Sacassange river, Lopes explained, showing a map used by the demining teams. In a rectangle measuring 300 by 500 metres, close to 200 mines have been detected.
The deminers use three methods to detect the mines: manual detection, an armour-plated machine or dogs ? labradors which are used to sniff the long grass.
The deminers have a hard time in the dense savannah composed of long grass and thorn bushes.
”Manually, it will take eight months for the team to clear this rectangle,” said Lopes. ”With a machine, it will take two or three months.”
Moxico province alone measures some 200Ã‚Â 000 square kilometres. ”The eastern part of the country was extremely heavily-mined by Unita,” said the Catholic bishop of Lwena, Gabriel Mbilingi.
”I have been here for two years, but the roads are so heavily-mined that I have been unable to visit the majority of the missions in my diocese,” Mbilingi said. ”The furthest I managed to go was Samanongue, 53 kilometers away, although some of my missions are 500 kilometres away,” the bishop said.
In this province which the people of the Angolan capital Luanda regard as ”the back of beyond,” the problem is that neither the rebels nor the government forces kept any charts of the mines they laid, Mbilingi said. ”The villagers are very poorly informed. They are blown up on mines as they go to cut wood to make charcoal.”
But some attempts have been made to inform the refugees. In the Mwanicana refugee camp, one of the women wears a dress donated by Unicef showing a map of the areas most heavily infested by mines. Two peasants headed for their fields were wearing similar dresses.
But only a few humanitarian organisations are working to clear the mines. ”The armed forces only clear mines when they want to travel somewhere,” one inhabitant said. ”A month ago it was impossible to travel on the Lwena to Mwacanica road without being blown up.” – AFP