Landmines: unfinished business

After Prince Harry’s trip to Kwando Kubango in southeast Angola, Siân Curry highlights how people there are still waiting for the land to be made safe.

Walking through a minefield is a sobering experience. It is one I will never forget.

You know that you’re walking down a cleared corridor that should be safe, and that the real danger lies on the other side of the skull-and-crossbones signs, but your heart is hammering nonetheless, and every step feels like a gamble.

For me, it was just half an hour of tension, followed by a wave of relief when it was over. But people living in mine-affected areas live with the threat of a fatal footstep every single day.

When Diana, Princess of Wales, visited Angola in 1997, she famously walked across a live minefield, and visited an orthopaedic clinic treating those injured by explosions. In doing so, she drew international attention to the scourge of landmines. Later that year, over 120 states signed a treaty to ban them, and to commit to clearing mined countries.

The minefield I visited was in Mavinga, in Kwando Kubango province, southeast Angola. Prince Harry was in the same province last week, in efforts to secure his mother’s legacy. Because, due to chronic underfunding, mine clearance efforts have lost momentum.

Even today, the only road to Mavinga still passes through heavily mined territory.

Even today, the only road to Mavinga still passes through heavily mined territory.

Photo: Ollie Sykes

When peace finally came to Angola in 2002 – after over 40 years of war – the country was littered with landmines. Understandably, the major cities, towns and roads were cleared first. But 17 years on, the job is only half-finished.

Angola is still one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. The areas most affected are predominantly poor, rural districts. Vast swathes of the countryside, especially in the east and southeast, remain too dangerous to walk on. In some areas, not even the roads have been cleared, let alone the surrounding farmland.

When I visited Kwando Kubango, back in 2006, thousands of people who had fled the fighting were returning home, rebuilding houses, lives, farms and villages completely from scratch.  

But as an area which had seen heavy combat, Mavinga was full of mines. Not only had they been laid at strategic sites such as the airstrip and hospital, they’d also been scattered around fruit trees and along the river, to prevent people from reaching food and water.

Christian Aid’s local partner IECA – the Angolan Congregational Church – was helping returnees with start-up packs containing essentials such as buckets, seeds, blankets and machetes. They were also co-ordinating community efforts to rebuild local infrastructure – schools, bridges and wells – and running mine education sessions with returnee children.These classes focused on helping children to recognize and understand the local minefield markers, usually sticks or stones painted different colours. They also taught children not to pick up unfamiliar objects, and to avoid playing in high-risk places, such as derelict buildings.

Pastor Ezekias from IECA crosses the rickety bridge over the river near Kapalandanda, Mavinga

Pastor Ezekias from IECA crosses the rickety bridge over the river near Kapalandanda, Mavinga, in June 2018. Even today, Mavinga remains a remote and isolated area, with limited infrastructure.

Photo: Ollie Skyes

From 2005 to 2017, international funding for mine clearance in Angola fell by over 80%, even though the job was far from finished. The goal is for the country to be landmine-free by 2025, but at current clearance rates, it won’t happen until 2046.  That’s too long to wait.

In a welcome move, the UK government began supporting mine clearance work in Angola again last year. But there is still a huge shortfall in funding, at both national and international level.

Today, our partner IECA still works in Mavinga, which, despite some clearance, remains heavily mined. For people living in mine-affected areas, everyday activities such as farming, grazing livestock, fetching water or going to school or market are all still limited by the presence of underground explosives. This, of course, makes it much more difficult for people to pull themselves out of poverty.

The danger also makes it logistically harder for state services and aid agencies to reach vulnerable and isolated people, especially when venturing into new territory or along smaller roads. Well aware of previous tragedies here, like the seven medics killed while delivering a vaccination programme, IECA staff must weigh up every journey to assess the risk.After years of work supporting resettlement and rebuilding, IECA’s efforts in Kwando Kubango today focus on helping communities adapt to another deadly challenge – climate change. With droughts here becoming more frequent and intense, IECA is helping people to introduce new crops and farming techniques that can better withstand the changing conditions.

Filomena Njanga from Mavinga outside her house

'It's a big problem when the rains don't come,' says Filomena Njanga from Mavinga. ‘I hope that IECA’s project will help us to find ways to stop our cattle dying… and reduce our crop losses when the rains don’t come.’

Photo: Ollie Skyes

Kwando Kubango is in the grip of a severe drought right now. Food and water are both in short supply, and at least 2.3 million people are affected across southern Angola. Christian Aid partners have been working to raise awareness of the drought, urging the government to take timely emergency action, including food distributions. But Angola is five times the size of the UK and, as in many countries, rural areas are often forgotten or overlooked.

This is one reason why, unfortunately, it is unsurprising that mine clearance efforts have slowed. The people of Kwando Kubango should not still be living with the threat of weapons from a war long-since over. But in demining, as with many other essential services, the rural poor are at the very bottom of the list.

Landmines don’t go away of their own accord. They remain deadly for decades. They need to be cleared, metre by painstaking metre, for the roads and the land to be made safe. If Prince Harry’s trip can help unlock the funding needed the finally finish the job in Angola, that can only be a good thing.

With climate change set to make their future even more challenging, the people of Kwando Kubango deserve, at the very least, the chance to put the past behind them.