Landmines still scar Angola seven years after peace

Red flags, painted sticks and pieces of plastic tape mark the danger areas along Angola’s roads and rivers, where thousands of landmines still litter the country seven years after a civil war ended.

Angola, which spent 27 years fighting a bloody civil war, is the third-most mined country in the world after Afghanistan and Cambodia, according to the Landmine Monitor, which is part of the international campaign to ban landmines.

Despite huge efforts since 2002 to clear the explosives, about 240 square kilometres remain mined in patches across the country, putting nearly one-fifth of the population at risk.

“The major problems now are about population pressures. Landmines are becoming a socioeconomic problem,” said Megan Latimer, of
de-mining charity Halo Trust.

Nearly half of Angola’s population live in extreme rural poverty surviving by subsistence farming, but land is often cut off by the mines.

“People need land for farming,” Latimer said. “And for those families returning to the countryside now the war is over, they’re coming up against mines so they are unable to farm their land, unable to construct new houses, and unable to access water.”

“Angolans are very aware of the dangers of mines but if a resource is being blocked and there is no alternative, they are going to enter anyway—even if it puts them at risk of an accident.”

Until recently millions of mines were thought to litter Angola, but a the first national survey completed in 2007 found the number of explosives was much smaller, but spread around hundreds of communities home to a total of 2,4-million people.

No one knows exactly how many people have been killed or injured by landmines, because hospitals stopped keeping records on the accidents some years ago.

Last year anywhere from 14 to 47 people were killed, depending on which agency compiled the numbers, but the simple truth is no one really knows.

“A lot of victims never make it to the hospital in the first place,” Latimer explained. “Angola is logistically a very difficult place to get around, and to reach hospitals it can take a week from some villages. So I think most just don’t ever make it.”

‘It all depends on funding’
The Halo Trust’s base is in Huambo—the province which saw some the heaviest fighting between the ruling MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and rebel group Unita (The Union for Total Independence of Angola).

Their offices are a short walk across a field from the country’s largest orthopaedic rehabilitation centre, one of the biggest in Africa.

Patients come to the clinic from all over the country for physiotherapy, made-to-measure crutches and wheelchairs, and prosthetic limbs which are made in the onsite laboratories.

Previously run by the International Committee of the Red Cross but now managed by the Angolan Ministry of Health, the building is tatty and run-down, and lines of amputees of all ages wait quietly to be seen by the staff.

Head physiotherapist Armindo Jamba said 80% of his patients were landmine victims but the number decreases each year as people become wiser about the dangers.

“I hope that in seven or eight years we’ll stop seeing mine victims here,” he said.

Angolans waited for 27 years for their civil war to end and many wonder how long it will be before their country will free of mines so they can get on with their lives.

“It’s hard to say exactly because there are so many factors but I reckon between eight and 15 years,” Latimer said. “It all depends on funding and as you know we’re in a global financial crisis right now.”

According to the 2008 Landmine Monitor, international funding fell by 59% from $48-million in 2006 to just $19,8-million in 2007.

More than 75 countries are affected to some degree by landmines and unexploded ordnances and in the past few decades hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, injured or maimed by mines.

Brothers Franscico and Luciano are among Angola’s statistics.

The boys, aged 15 and seven, from Bailundo, a town north of Huambo, were playing inside a rusty car wreck last September when and an old bomb exploded and tore off Franscico’s arm and Luciano’s leg.

Gently touching Luciano’s stump, Jemba said: “We will give him a new leg, but in time, he’s still growing so we have to wait.” - AFP

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