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 Sunday 08 November 2009
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MOZAMBIQUE: Demining - the devil is in the detail

Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
HALO Trust deminers assemble at dawn for a briefing
SONGO, 3 November 2009 (IRIN) - The conversations of deminers are often illustrated with sketches on the reverse side of old reports or the toe of a boot drawing lines in the sand to show how a single mine can close 35km of road, make a bridge redundant or deny a community a swathe of farming land. They are a meticulous fraternity that knows the devil is very much in the detail.

In one of the world's longest running search-and-destroy operations they have hunted landmines for 17 years across all the terrains of Mozambique, destroying hundreds of thousands of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from independence and civil wars spanning four decades.

Soil movements have brought some landmines into view, but most remain hidden a few centimetres below the surface, waiting for the 6kg or more of pressure required to set them off; others are planted on spikes, the trip wire entangled and camouflaged by vegetation - a country's weeping wound decades after the fighting has ceased.

Thick catalogues carried by deminers detail hundreds of different types of landmines: cheap, simple weapons produced in their millions by most of the world's industrialized countries, designed with only two purposes - to kill or to maim.

Mines that maim fall into two categories: those designed to tear off arms and legs, and the euphemistically named "toe-popper", which mangles a foot in a heavy boot to a pulp.

Every minefield has its story. In the absence of records, maps or data, distinct patterns show the extensive use of landmines during the war of independence against Portugal's colonial administration, and the subsequent civil war by Frelimo, Mozambique's first post-colonial government, against the rebel Renamo movement.

Maputo Province in the south, where the capital, Maputo, is located; the Beira Corridor in central Mozambique, which gave land-locked Zimbabwe - a staunch Frelimo supporter - access to the port city of Beira; the approaches to the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric scheme in the northwestern province of Tete, and the northern provinces bordering Tanzania, where Frelimo launched its anti-colonial struggle, provide the broad brush strokes of where intensive landmine activity occurred.

Small villages and hamlets were not spared as remote communities acquired strategic military importance. Basic infrastructure and boreholes provided bases for government soldiers, who laid minefields as barriers against rebel attacks. When peace came in 1992, these poor and vulnerable communities sank back into irrelevance, but the landmine legacy turned subsistence farming or a game of soccer into deadly pursuits.

Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
A small mine, known as a "toe-popper", designed to amputate a foot
Mine clearance is like a combination of gardening and archaeology; with the exception of the metal detector, the tools - such as clippers and trowels - can be bought at gardening shops, but that is where the similarities end. The rule of thumb among mine disposal experts is that for every 5,000 mines cleared, one deminer is killed and two others injured.

Helen Tirebuck, a location manager at HALO Trust, Mozambique's biggest humanitarian deminer, told IRIN in a rudimentary shelter serving as an office during a mine clearance operation, that deminers always leave a gift, because the area "becomes part of Mozambique again".

The investigators

Locating a mine field begins like any other investigation into finding a killer: by interviewing the witnesses.

Geraldo Pedro, a survey officer at HALO Trust, has criss-crossed most of the country's 128 districts in search of leads to identify the killing fields that made Mozambique one of the world's nine most mined countries.

The reliability of clues provided by "informants" is gauged on four levels: first prize is information by people who laid the mines, or witnesses; next by people living in the vicinity since the minefield was laid; then incidents of people or livestock killed or injured by landmines; lastly, areas merely suspected of being mined.

''He was quite confident about where the mines were laid - he pointed out where four mines were laid, and we found four mines - but if that happens, we're lucky''
"You have to get into the heart of the informants," Pedro told IRIN, "and you need two informants to corroborate the information ... one informant does not know everything." Exposing a hustler hoping for a reward by inventing the existence of a minefield, or awakening the memory of a genuine witness to one, can take hours.

Occasionally there are exceptions. Pedro once met a cellphone company employee who was working in the area where he had served as a government soldier during the 16-year civil war. "He was quite confident about where the mines were laid - he pointed out where four mines were laid, and we found four mines - but if that happens, we're lucky," he told IRIN.

"I have found that in [previously] Renamo[-held] zones, people do not supply information easily and I have to make them understand that we are not dealing with political parties here, we are clearing mines for everyone," he said.

The Baseline Assessment in 2007 determined that just over 12 million square metres of the country was still mine-contaminated, a sharp drop from the more than 500 million square metres identified by the 2001 Landmine Impact Survey. Mozambique could become the first of the world's most mined countries to be declared mine-free if donor support does not continue to wane.

In October 2009 the HALO Trust began clearing an 11km mine belt bracketing the Cahora Bassa dam, which provides hydroelectricity to a number of southern African states, including the continent's economic power house, South Africa.

The area was heavily mined by the Portuguese; now desperately poor communities practice subsistence agriculture close to and sometimes within the minefields, their home-made hoes cutting into the soil at the optimum depth for burying anti-personnel mines.

During Pedro's survey of the Cahora Bassa mine belt, near the village of Nhamchene on the western side, he was informed of another mine belt near the town of Songo on the eastern side, where the community had hung pieces of red plastic on trees to mark the location of mines that had killed or maimed people, or livestock that had been tempted to graze in the more lush vegetation of the minefield.

The work day

The Songo site is being cleared first. The deminers live in a tented camp and their day begins at dawn. They work a seven hour day on six and half days per week, and take a break in the fourth week; then the monthly cycle starts again. Alcohol is banned.

Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
Before the deminers arrived, Pedro provided a final survey map of the minefield, known as a polygon, with GPS coordinates of its extent, landmarks for a safe approach, type of vegetation and soil, a record of mine accidents, and where they occurred.

Tirebuck visited the site many times in preparation for demining. Permission to demine had been sought and given by national, provincial and local authorities, the Songo police were informed, and the necessary permits to transport explosives to destroy mines had been obtained. A report detailing the position of a destroyed mine or UXO, as well as the ground cleared is sent to the Mozambique National Demining Institute every month.

A radio check with HALO's country headquarters in Maputo is made daily and a satellite phone is on hand as back-up. If communications are not working, neither do the deminers; if an accident occurs, all HALO's demining operations throughout  Mozambique stop to keep the airwaves clear.

The standard operating procedures do not vary, but each minefield has its idiosyncrasies - this site is on rocky slopes covered by light vegetation and the deminers require protection, "so their knees are not destroyed," Tirebuck told IRIN.

Her main concern is the evacuation of personnel in case of an accident, and adequate supplies of water for drinking and ablutions. The area can only be accessed by an old, very broken road and young men from the local community have been enlisted to repair the worst of it, providing a cash injection to a community largely devoid of it. "They are helping us as much as we are helping them," Tirebuck said.

''I feel anger for everyone who has planted a mine anywhere''
Each demining section has 9 personnel, including six deminers, two of which are trained paramedics, a section commander, a supervisor - responsible for destroying the mines - and a driver, who also doubles up as radio operator.

When a mine or UXO is detected, the deminer begins excavating the mine from about 50cm back, and when a portion of it is exposed and it is identified as a mine, a supervisor will place the explosives while other deminers act as sentries to prevent anyone entering the area.

The deminer's world is the square metre that he or she kneels before, which is swept with mine-detectors about 35 times on average, only pausing between each sweep to run a piece of metal across the detector's head to ensure it is working. Tirebuck expects the terrain will allow for each deminer to clear about 40m of a corridor 1m wide each day.

"This is one of the hottest minefields I have ever been in, but it is just the way it is," said Tirebuck, whose first assignment with HALO Trust was in Cambodia. Temperatures are above 40 degrees Celsius, but deminers have to wear blast-proof face visors and heavy protective gear. They only stop work for rain because it impairs vision through the visor.

Photo: Guy Oliver/IRIN
A demining recruit listens intently to a lecture

The deminers have been trucked in from Chimoio, a cooler part of the country, and Tirebuck decides whether they should start work earlier, take a noon break and begin again once the heat fades.

Joao Madamol, a HALO Trust demining trainer, went to the church on the first Sunday he was there and recruited more potential deminers than he had vacancies. In a battered marquee tent, with large rocks for chairs, he hauls out FFE (free from explosives) mines to teach them about the types of mines expected to be found in the area, their fuses and killing radius.

The new recruits will complete a three-week course and are expected to be better acclimatized to the scorching temperatures. Those that perform best will undergo a paramedic course, and the best of these will then receive training as a section leader.

Many of the recruits recognize the mines from their area, and talk about "finally feeling free" when the explosives are gone. A new recruit told IRIN: "I feel anger for everyone who has planted a mine anywhere."

The final act of mine clearance is the most important, and brings closure, Tirebuck said. It is the "walk-through" by the community and deminers across the former minefield that has killed, maimed and haunted generations of Mozambicans.


Theme(s): (PLUSNEWS) Conflict


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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