Landmines still plague Angola as aid dries up
BENGUELA, April 28, 2011 (AFP) – Nine years after the end of Angola’s civil war, landmines are still scattered across the country and a full clean-up looks decades away as international aid has dried up.
“During the war, landmines protected the population here” by keeping the rebels at bay, said Yacinta Alfredo, teacher in a village close to the Biobio hydro-electric dam, 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the port town of Lobito, in one of the most heavily mined parts of the country.
“But later they became a danger. My cousin died, just there, not far,” added the single mother, who fears for the safety of her seven children.
Biopio dam provides power to the nearby cities of Lobito and Benguela, and was a strategic point during the 27-year war that devastated Angola.
“A 14-kilometre area was mined in 1994 by the Angolan army to protect the dam from attack by UNITA,” the Union for the Total Independence of Angola which battled the government, said Cesar Coimbra, an official with anti-mining group Halo Trust.
The area around the village has been demined, so Alfredo can go out to collect water and let her children play outside without worry.
But a few kilometres away, on the other side of the river, red and white sticks dot the grass and the screech of metal detectors recalls the still-present danger. About 20 landmines are found there every day.
Halo Trust is the most prominent de-mining charity in Angola, but its budget has halved since 2008, after losing two-thirds of its donors. That forced the closure of its Benguela office for a while. It was eventually reopened because of the demand.
“Around Benguela, we have demined 86 areas in 12 years, which represents about half the work to be done. But we had 14 demining teams in this region and are down to just two. It could take 40 years to finish the job,” Coimbra said.
Government acknowledges the problem, and has its own de-mining operation that aims to clear “priority” areas by the end of 2012.
“At the beginning, just after the war, we received enormous aid in this area. Many NGOs were present,” said Jose Roque Oliveiro, an official with Angola’s government de-mining agency.
“Now many of them have left because of the lack of outside funding,” he said.
“There was the global economic crisis. And then the image of Angola changed. The country is considered less in need of aid,” he added.
The danger posed by landmines has grown as oil-rich Angola embarks on a vast reconstruction project.
Repaired roads are opening up previously isolated areas, exposing people to regions still pocked by landmines.
The government’s drive to revive Angola’s farms, among Africa’s most productive during Portuguese colonial times, also poses risks.
The scheme aims to lower Angola’s astronomical cost of living by producing more food locally, while also creating jobs. But many people in rural areas are wary, having suffered or witnessed landmine accidents.
“Now in Biopio, if people are worried, they send their animals in first,” said Marie Demulier, also of Halo Trust.
That means more animals than humans are caught in the explosions, but even the loss of cattle is a steep financial burden, she said.
“The animals are their breadwinners, and often their safety net against food prices,” she added.
Landmines killed 80 people in Angola in 2010, against 28 the year before.
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