Landmine lessons:

🕔Jul 21, 2008

Northern BC is well known for its vast, untracked land. Wild and natural, the mountains and forest stretch on and on, hiding lakes and rivers waiting to be discovered. The isolation and unlimited opportunities to explore are a major reason many locals live in the region, and visitors come and stay.
Mozambique, a long skinny country on the southeast coast of Africa, is also blessed with huge patches of naturally beautiful and unpopulated terrain. Its geography is different, though: the cedar trees are palms, its bears are elephants, and the ocean is warm. But the country’s 2,500 kilometres of beachy coastline, and more than 800,000 square kilometres of interior, is stunning.
Still, Mozambiquans lack our freedom to enjoy and explore their land, for deadly reasons.
Buried underneath Mozambique’s earth are thousands of unexploded landmines, leftover from the country’s 17-year civil war and its colonial war before that. Though the civil war ended in 1992, and massive local and global efforts have cleared mines from much of the country’s busiest areas, explosives remain, armed and hidden.
In the past, landmines maimed or killed about 100 Mozambiquans a year, though statistics show it’s only about a quarter of that now, according to Adérito Ishmael, the project coordinator of a major mine-clearing operation.

Deadly array
The first time I met Ishmael, he picked me up from the muggy, one-building airport in Inhambane, two hours by air from Mozambique’s capital city, Maputo. Within minutes I was sitting at a table in his office with an array of landmines, thankfully disarmed, spread before me. They varied in shape, size and colour. Some were spheres of metal the size of my fist; others were rectangular wooden boxes. Some resembled missiles.
The simplicity of their design was most surprising, though Ishmael’s stories of death and destruction caused by the objects brought home to me how lethal they are. “The design and function is the same,” Ishmael explained. “The main difference is the amount of explosive each contains.”
“This will blow your leg off,” he said, pointing at one of them. “This one will shoot metal all over the place so it injures a lot of people. One type pops up 1.5 metres into the air and then explodes, so the bottom bit shoots metal too.”

Sick minds
The purpose of any landmine is to maim or kill, Ishmael continued. Generally, the newer the model the more damage it causes and the trickier its design—meaning harder to detect and disarm.
“Understanding landmines has really made me understand how sick some people’s minds are,” he told me.
For three sweaty hours Ishmael summarized Mozambique’s political history and landmine situation. He touched on the design of landmines, the local and global toll they’ve taken, the difficulty in finding them, the global movement to ban them, and what his employer, Handicap International (HI), is doing to help.
HI is a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting and supporting vulnerable people, particularly people with disabilities, in their efforts to become self-reliant. Founded in 1982, the group works all over the world and started operating in Mozambique in 1986. There it focuses on three areas of intervention: disabilities, HIV, and mine action—and many people in Mozambique were disabled by landmines.
The organization aims to educate Mozambiquans, especially children, about mines and their dangers. It is also working to identify the most hazardous areas, and is clearing the land of mines.
HI estimates it’s cleared approximately 1,000 square kilometres of land, benefiting approximately 2.1 million inhabitants in a country of 17 million.
“We have never had one accident in this project,” Ishmael stated proudly, “though we have had one incident.”
Any mishap that happens while a de-mining team is working to clear an established area is considered an “accident.” An “incident” is anything that happens off the field, outside of the regular workday. In 2000, a local woman who worked as a cleaner for one of HI’s teams stepped on a mine within the boundaries of the team’s camp, an area considered to be a safe zone. She lost her legs.
“We’d lived at the camp for a month and didn’t realize there was a mine there.”
Knowing where the mines are is one of the most difficult parts of the operation. The teams largely rely on informers, such as ex-soldiers still in the area, for this information. But informers may be afraid to speak up, may have left the area, or forgotten where the mines are.
“Sometimes it’s just common sense where they are,” Ishmael said; a circle around a village, for example, or at the base of a bridge. “But sometimes there is no logic.”

To the minefields
The next day, we visited a de-mining team in action. Using a GPS to find our destination, we turned off the highway and bumped along a narrow dirt path in Ishmael’s HI Landcruiser.
Waiting for us was a group of eight men dressed in blue coveralls and steel-toed boots, relaxing in a small clearing. Ankle-high ribbon marked the area, the control point, from the minefields behind it. Chatting casually in Portuguese, the group was pleased to welcome visitors as it meant they’d get an extra-long break.
After signing away rights to sue should I get blown up, the operation’s section leader Jacinto Chirrime read me the safety rules and introduced the team. The men in blue included manual de-miners, de-mining machine operators, and a medic.
The group is working to clear the fields near the village of Ngongane, home to about 870. In 1987, soldiers laid mines around this village to prevent an enemy attack. In 1989 four locals died and one woman lost her leg after stepping on mines. Since then, the villagers avoid using any land beyond the limited areas they are almost certain have no mines.
So far, within just a few days, the de-mining team has found 38 pieces of metal, all of which must be investigated to ensure they are not dangerous, but have yet to find a mine there.
“We don’t have many expectations,” Ishmael commented. “Sometimes we find three in a day. Sometimes we find nothing all week.”
Paid a comparatively high wage of $300 (US) a month, HI’s de-miners work 10 days on, four days off. Sweating under the weight of their heavy helmets and long, thick, explosive-proof vests, they must concentrate intensely on their work.

Machine vs manual
The terrain dictates whether manual de-miners or machinists operating specialized remote-controlled machines are used. In flat terrain that is free of trees, the much more efficient machines are used. If not, manual de-miners, who must work slowly and meticulously for their own and others’ safety, are deployed.
Standing behind a protective shield, an operator runs the machine from a distance. Equipped with heavy weights on rotating chains, the machine churns up and down the field. The chains cut the grass and the weights, or the machine itself—built to withstand the force of an explosion—detonate buried mines. Dogs trained to sniff out explosives comb the minefield afterwards, looking for unexploded mines.
Manual de-miners, on the other hand, walk slowly along specifically marked pathways in a mined area, using metal detectors. At any sign of metal, they use a variety of tools to cut the grass, and dig and prod at the ground to investigate whether a mine is present. If the metal object is a mine, it is marked off and blown up at the end of the day.
“The job market is very hard, so people need this job. They don’t do it because they like to do it,” Ishmael had explained to me on the ride there.
The de-miners seemed happy enough to be helping their country, though. Jackson Juliao, 27, said he is proud and not afraid of the dangers.
But funding and time are almost always issues. To speed the operation and ideally clear the three provinces they are working in within five years, HI is considering a new land-release policy. Essentially, instead of ensuring every square inch of a suspected area is safe, which takes a lot of time and big budgets, HI will release land back to locals when it is “reasonably certain” it is clear. This means, for example, if all the information from locals indicates a section of a minefield is clear, the land will be released even if the team has not checked it.
Ishmael recognizes the policy is not ideal, but said, “You have to find the balance between safety and cost.”
Whether the organization goes ahead with the new policy depends on whether locals will accept it or not. “It’s their life on the line,” he said.
I tell him Canadians would never accept that, and remind myself that we’re so lucky we don’t have to.