Mozambique striding into new landmine free era

2014-11-14 10:15
A de-miner using simple digging tools to locate mines for destruction at the Cahora Bassa minefield in Tete Province in Mozambique. (The Halo Trust, AFP)

A de-miner using simple digging tools to locate mines for destruction at the Cahora Bassa minefield in Tete Province in Mozambique. (The Halo Trust, AFP)

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Washington - In the coming weeks, Mozambique, once one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, will mark a historic milestone and proudly declare itself free of the deadly scourge.

Gone will be the deep-seated fear of generations in the southeast African nation that one wrong step could spell disaster.

In 1992 as it emerged from 16 years of civil war, Mozambique had won the dubious distinction of being, along with Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Cambodia one of the five most heavily mined nations on Earth.

Now sometime towards the end of this year or early in 2015, Mozambique will be the first of the five to be declared "impact-free", US officials and observers say.

The treacherous minefields were the deadly legacy not just of the internecine bloodshed which killed a million people in fighting between Frelimo liberation movement and anti-Communist Renamo rebels.

They were also lingering scars of long-forgotten conflicts such as the 1964-1975 war of independence with Portugal and hostilities along the border with then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

Experts feared it could take 50 to 100 years to go meter by meter and clear tens of thousands of buried weapons.

Instead it took just over two decades.

This rare success story in the dangerous world of de-mining has been achieved thanks to unparalleled cooperation between the government in Maputo, non-governmental organizations and international donors like the United States, Britain and Sweden.

Don't step off the path

"There are few things more viscerally frightening than mines", said US ambassador to Mozambique, Douglas Griffiths.

Before the demining began "I can remember travelling to isolated parts of the country, and the constant refrain was 'Never step off the path'".

Demining experts talk of the deathly silence that hangs over remote minefields.

And of the resilience and courage of villagers who have carved paths through these fields of death by hurling huge boulders into them to act as a series of stepping stones.

Mozambique's story is also deeply personal to US principal deputy assistant secretary, Todd Chapman, who first arrived in Maputo in 1993 as the embassy's economic officer.

Now the deputy at the state department's Washington bureau of political and military affairs which oversees US demining programmes, Chapman remembers getting down on his knees, sweating under the heavy protective gear, as he joined a meticulous search.

"Back in 1993, economic activity was greatly constrained because of the threat of mines out in the countryside", he told AFP.

But as demining efforts began to have an effect "slowly but surely you saw areas of the country open up", he said.

The memory of seeing women working their way slowly through minefields around electricity pylons bordering their humble huts still tugs at him.

Their children were "playing along a corridor that has been mined for decades, and they have been told, 'Don't go play near those power lines.'"

The women were "motivated not just by a pay-check, but they knew they were making their community safe."

The US is the largest single donor to humanitarian demining programmes, spending some $2.3bn across 90 countries since 1993, or 30% of the global total. Some $53m has gone to Mozambique.

And even though Washington has yet to sign the international Mine Ban Treaty, this year it prohibited its forces from using the weapons except on the Korean peninsula.

Princess Diana's cause

The toll in Mozambique has been heavy.

While exact figures are unknown, the national demining institute (NDI) recorded some 2 145 casualties up to 2001 without breaking the figure down between those injured and killed. In recent years the number of annual accidents has slipped to single digits.

About 182 000 landmines have been cleared since 1993, of which about 150 000 were safely removed by the Halo trust, the British NGO championed by the late Princess Diana.

"I think the key thing is that there's been a lot of committed long-term support, namely from the US government, but also from other donors", said Olly Hyde-Smith, Mozambique programme manager for Halo which has worked in the country since 1993.

Currently 38 Halo teams are working on the border with Zimbabwe, where in the 1970s the then Rhodesian army laid some 250km of minefields.

Mozambique has also benefited from some pioneering cutting-edge technology including sophisticated metal detectors which helped speed up the work.

Perhaps the oddest innovation though is the use of rats introduced to Mozambique by Belgian NGO Apopo in 2006.

The team of tiny critters is trained over nine months to detect TNT beneath the ground in return for a treat, and can scour in a matter of minutes an area which would take a human much longer to pick over.

Many countries still struggle with grim reminders of past conflicts, and Mozambique's success can perhaps give hope to others.

"As we've shown in Mozambique, if you've got donor support and guys on the ground you get the results", said Hyde-Smith.

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