Magazine article African Business

The Deadly Menace of the Mines

Magazine article African Business

The Deadly Menace of the Mines

Article excerpt

Angola has displaced Cambodia and Afghanistan as the most heavily mined country in the world. To make matters worse, no one seems to know where the deadly mines have been planted. Keith Somervile reports that the menace of the mines is the most serious obstacle to Angola's economic recovery.

With the prospects for a meeting between President dos Santos and UNITA leader Mr Jonas Savimbi improving, thanks to the mediation efforts of the Zambian Government, there is a slight glimmer of hope that last November's peace accord will finally amount to more than just an ineffective combination of ink and paper.

But, even if the rival leaders meet as planned and the proposed deployment of UN peacekeeping forces takes place on schedule, Angola's multitude of problems are not going to go away. A firm handshake between the two leaders, would however be a valuable symbolic gesture that they are willing to do more than just spout rhetoric about peace.

The most serious of problems facing the economy however, and the one that will outlast the current stand-off between the two warring armies, is the existence of between eight and 10m landmines scattered across the roads and agricultural land of rural Angola.

Speaking in the port of Lobito on April 24, the chief UN military observer in Angola, General Chris Garuba, said that mines "distributed all over the country block the free circulation of people and goods," and would seriously hamper the implementation of the peace accord.

Although most NG0s estimate that there are around 10m mines still undiscovered, General Garuba warned that the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel weapons by Government forces, UNITA and the South African Defence Force meant that there could be as many as 20m - many of them planted on key roads.

A South African mine specialist says that the SADF alone planted 27,000 mines around the important southern regional centre of Mavinga during its military intervention in Angola.

The General said it would not take weeks or months but years to get to grips with the problem, but he added that as well as mine clearing groups from charities such as the Halo Trust and the Mines Advisory Group there are advance groups of British military engineers in the country who will concentrate on clearing roads so that commerce and the deployment of UN peacekeepers are not unduly impeded.

Nevertheless, the problems of clearing the mines are gargantuan. Helen Long, Field Survey Coordinator for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, has been putting together a study on the socio-economic effects of land mines on many countries, including Angola, for presentation to the UN Review Conference of the Landmine Protocol in September. "De-mining is in a catch 22 situation in Angola," she says. "There is no comprehensive geographical survey of Angolan mines; yet no-one has been able to do one given the dangers and difficulties the mines represent."

It seems then that the charities and engineers involved in mine clearing can only have a limited impact until a proper survey is carried out. Hope has been held out by Norwegian Peoples Aid, who are negotiating with the UN to do a full survey soon. But in the meantime Angola's reconstruction can only move at a snail's pace.

Indeed the presence or fear of landmines on roads and agricultural land has served to exacerbate the problems of food shortages, hunger and dislocation of trade caused by the civil war.

"What we do know," says Helen, "is that judging by the number of casualties, Angola has a massively high density of mines to people - its not so much how many mines there are, but how many people come into contact with them."

This has become particularly important for food production since peasant farmers in the centre and south of the country are afraid to work in the fields because of UNITA's past nasty habit of sowing mines in the fields to strategically disrupt food production. …

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