Seeds of death – landmines in Angola

Landmine awareness programme for children
Landmine awareness programme for children

Angola is one of the countries that has been most heavily affected by landmines and unexploded ordnance. In the 1990s, the United Nations estimated that Angola had over 10 million landmines, nearly one landmine for every Angolan. One of the organisations that has been working to clear the landmines and unexploded ordinance is the HALO Trust. Eric Beauchemin traveled to the central Angolan city of Kuito to witness a demining operation and speak to landmine victims.

Gold medal, New York Radio Festivals, 1996

Original broadcast: April 19, 1995

Photos: Eric Beauchemin

Transcript

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Seeds of Death in Angola”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

There’s nothing worse than since a little boy or a little girl walking around with no legs or no hands. I think it’s the saddest thing in the world.

He still has the heel but the toes and the middle part of the foot, he lost. This happened in a mine explosion. EB: What was he doing? I don’t know. I can ask if you want. So, he went to the market with his other, he said. And they came back. And his mother told him to go and visit some of your friends. So, he went there. And the father of one of his friends, he said, go and look for canados, you know, the sugar cane. So, he went with two other boys. And the father said, OK, you can take there, and the other one can take there. And he wanted to go and cut the sugar canes…and he stepped on the mine. Yeah. EB: Now, what’s going to happen to this child? They amputated already the half of his foot. He can still walk, but probably he will need crutches. EB: Will they put an artificial limb on so he can walk more normally? On this moment, it’s not yet possible because we don’t have the material. But probably, in a short while, there’s an organisation who will come here to do the physiotherapy for the children and the people who are amputated. But if he received this, would he be able to walk quite normally? Well, quite normally…he never will walk like we walk. But he is able – because he exercise so that he can walk, allez, quite OK.

Halo Trust
Halo Trust

In Angola, over 70-thousand people have lost feet, legs, hands or arms because of landmines and unexploded ordinance or ammunition. Most of the victims are women or children, the ones who go out to gather firewood, vegetables and fruit in the countryside. Sometimes the mines just blow off part of a foot, but often it’s part of the leg or both legs. The seeds of death were planted over the past thirty years. Fighting began in Angola with the independence struggle against the Portuguese in the early 1960s. Then in 1975, the civil war began, pitting the government, with the backing of Cuba and the Soviet Union, against the UNITA rebels, who were aided by South Africa and the United States. According to Nick Knobbs of the HALO Trust, a British-based non-governmental organization which specializes in removing mines, no one knows how many mines have been sown in Angola’s soil over the past 30 years.

There have been several estimations. One of them is 10 million. Another is 20. I think 20 is a bit far-fetched personally. I have no proof to say otherwise. 10 million would perhaps give you a start point, but you have to work from there and try and define exactly what the problem is. In some cases, they are in defense rings around towns or infrastructure. Maybe on the edge of bridges and, in certain areas, alongside roads. In others, they may just be scattered pretty widely by army military patrols – and in this case, I include all sides- that have just gone off and laid a few here and there. So, very, very difficult to define. Even if you can define what the problem is or the quantity, it really still comes down to “is it a priority to clear now or can it wait a few years?”

Many mines will have to wait. According to a report commissioned by UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, both sides used mines extensively, as a weapon of destruction and terror in Angola. Mines have been laid in villages, cultivated fields, forests, mountains, rivers, roads, social and industrial infrastructure and even toys! To complicate things even more, Angola is as big as France, Germany Italy, AND it takes weeks to clear a single hectare of land. The difficulty is that no one knows where all the mines are.

Nonetheless, UNICEF has begun a mine awareness program on local radio stations to try and prevent the mines from destroying more lives. But the seeds of death are just waiting to germinate, and the HALO Trust is one of the few demining groups in Angola at the moment. So together with the local people and the authorities, the HALO Trust decides which cases are more urgent.

Well, an urgent one may be a place where people are going back to clear their place so they can rebuild their lives from where they lived years ago or because they are foraging for food or getting water…something specifically, in frequent use and in an area that is in frequent use and where they are at risk. In many cases, the risk is defined by when you arrive there and there’s been five or six accidents recorded in the previous few months or children getting injured, playing in an area. So that is an urgent case. And a place that is not so urgent is where somebody says “over there, there’s a government minefield and no one is going down there”. If they are not going down there, it’s not therefore a problem.

Angola is the world’s most heavily mined country, after Afghanistan. With one mine for every Angolan, it would take years for the HALO Trust and its sister demining groups just to deal with the urgent cases. And if peace does take root in the country, there will be many more urgent cases. Nearly a million Angolans have been displaced by the 30 years of fighting and another quarter of a million Angolans are now refugees in neighboring Zaire and Zambia. They all await true peace and demining operations before returning home. Even if the peace stabilizes, the mines will continue to kill. Today, for example, like yesterday and tomorrow, mines killed an average of 20 people in the eastern province of Moxico alone. According to Paul Heslok of the Halo Trust, both sides in the Angolan wars used a wide variety of mines.

First one we got is an anti-personnel pressure blast, and this is from Romania. They’re MAI-75. This is a small ?? mine. South African. It’s an R2M2 pressure blast anti-personnel. What’s the difference between these two mines? Does this one cause more damage than the other? The first one probably has 100 or 120 grams of explosives. The second one is maybe about 75. So, it’s just the size of the blast. They’re both plastic, so minimum metal-wise but they do have some metal so they are detectable. This is Chinese Type 72. It’s probably one of the most common mines in the world. It’s anti-personnel. As you can see here, it’s tiny. Usually this is enough to blow off the end of your foot off. So it’s definitely designed to maim rather than to kill. We picked a guy up the other day. It had taken half of his left foot off. This one is PNM. It’s a Russian pressure mind. It’s probably one of the most common mines in the world. This is a GYATA-64, which is a Hungarian copy of it. These have a lot of explosives, both of them: over 200 grams and that usually takes your whole leg off, possibly both your legs. So, they’re quite dangerous. They’re quite nasty. They usually kill, as well. This is a PMD-6. It’s a Russian box mine. It’s made from wood but it has a metal fuse, so it’s detectable. It was first seen in the Second World War, and again, this is so easy to make. You just need a 200 gram block of explosives, a fuse and some wood. And you can knock those together anywhere. ‘cause of the large amount of explosives in them, again they tend to take your whole leg off. Finally we have an OZM-72, which is quite a large jumping mine. This again is either tripped by a trip wire or it can be used by electric initiation. Once it’s tripped, it jumps up to a height of about a meter and explodes. ‘Cause it’s quite a big one, the danger area is about 50 meters. There were seven people killed near the airfield when one of those went off.

Destroyed apartment building in Kuito
Destroyed apartment building in Kuito

To visit the central Angolan town of Kuito is to begin to understand the full horror of mines. On Sunday afternoons, Angolan and Brazilian music blares, as people walk amidst the rubble. Kuito must have been a charming, sleepy provincial town before the war, before government soldiers took up position on one side of the main street, UNITA rebels on the other, before the two sides began their 9-month siege of Kuito. They destroyed everything: from the church to the town’s satellite dish. The left no wall intact and managed to hit almost every single roof in town. They also laid mines. About 500 of Kuito’s 30.000 inhabitants have lost limbs because of the mines and unexploded ordinance. Most of the victims are women and children. There are no factories to manufacture artificial limbs in Angola, so most of the amputees hop around on sticks or crawl on their hands. Paul Heslock took me around Kuito to see the Halo Trust’s demining operations.

Kuito’s still a fairly dangerous place. Points to remember are: don’t leave the tar unless you have a guide who indicates a safe area for you to go into because there are mines and UXOs all around. UXOs are unexploded ordinance. Under no circumstances pick anything up, no matter how shiny or interesting it seems. Just ask me or one of the guys and they’ll indicate probably whether it’s safe or dangerous. A lot of people have lost hands through picking things up. In the event of an explosion or any accident, stand still and await further instructions. Just make sure that you are not injured yourself. If you are, draw attention. Otherwise, just stand still. Wait for instructions. I’m a trained paramedic and we’ve got a trained paramedic with us. He’s got the medical kit and a stretcher. If something happens, you’ll be taken to the MSF hospital, which is around the corner from here. They’ll stabilize you and we’ll get you flown out to Luanda, and I’ve got a sat phone to call South Africa. Really the biggest safety rule is just follow the instructions. I’m going to put you into a safety vest and a face protector now. That would stop any pieces of shrapnel that might come up from the explosion. Any questions?

EB: The Halo Trust is working in Kuito to try to clear a school site. Why have you chosen this site? It’s in support of the charity, Concern. We’re very keen to work very close in support of all the NGOs in Kuito. So, once a week, we have a meeting and decide what tasks are being done and where anybody has got priority tasks, such as clearing the well site for Oxfam. Concern asked us to clear this site because they plan to re-roof the building and put a thousand children here. Now, obviously, the last thing we want is for children to come to school and blow themselves up. So, we’re clearing an area of about 25 meters around the school, which is marked by red poles. You can see: most of the area around it is being cultivated outside of that distance, though is the suspicious area.

EB: How do you actually begin to clear the explosives or the mines? We start from a safe area for obvious reasons. Then the guys, they work in pairs. And they clear a lane a meter wide and, as I say, around 25 meters out from the buildings. Then they come back and do another lane. It’s just the same, slow repetitive process. EB: This guy is actually clearing a lane right now and he’s just going ahead and cutting the grass? Well, the most important tool is your eyes. So he will squat, will use his eyes and he’ll examine the ground in quite close detail, maybe even running his fingers through the grass to make sure there’s no trip wires, no obvious signs. Once he’s happy that there’s nothing obvious above the ground, he then removes the vegetation using a pair of hand shears. He takes the vegetation right down to ground level. It’s almost as though a swarm of locust have passed through. Once he’s got it down to ground level, then the detector man can come in and sweep. So he’s got a clear sweep of the head. Once he gets a signal, then, as I say, he indicates to the probe man who starts to probe. But all the vegetation has to be removed. EB: Why does it have to be removed? One, you can’t get your detector in close enough in front of the vegetation. Two it could be concealing trip wires. Quite a lot of mines, you can actually find on the surface. They’ve been in the ground for quite a long time, particularly some of the mines here. The rain has washed off the top soil, and you can actually see the mines sticking through. It can work the other way and the soil can get deeper, so the mines get deeper down. But these detectors are effective , probably down to 50 centimeters if there’s a good size piece of metal.

EB: How do you know where to look? When we first move into an area, we’ll ask the locals because they’re the people who most know where it is are the locals because often they will have actually sat and watched the guys plant the mines. They’ll have just been sitting in their hut looking out and seeing the guys plant it. Or they’ll have had friends or relatives who have been injured. So they’ll know the area is there. You can sometimes see the mines above the ground. We talk to the local military and police, and they’ll obviously know roughly where all the minefields are. EB: Are any of these mines mapped on military or UNITA maps? They are but they won’t give us them. They say they have the mines but they won’t give us them. EB: Why is that? They don’t actually trust us. They think we are spies to some extent. They cannot understand why we would want to remove their mines. The government thinks we are opening channels for UNITA to come in and attack, and UNITA think we are government agents who are probably planting mines rather than removing them. So there is a lot of suspicion at the moment. People just don’t understand why we are doing it. EB: But the people who live around here do, don’t they? We’re very well received by all locals. Every country I’ve been in, wherever we turn up, a lot of smiling faces, and as soon as we blow one, it’s over here, over here. They’ll take us around and show us everything. The gratitude by everybody sort of from the government down to the kids, you know, they love us being here because they know everything we remove means one less person is going to be injured.

In a way, that indicates that it is probably not a mine because you’re getting the signal so strong. EB: Well, what would it be then? It could be a bit of shrapnel or a large nail, tin can. EB: So,mines just give off a very small signal in general? It depends. If you found an anti-tank mine, which is 15 kilos in weight and is incased in metal, then that obviously gives off quite a strong signal. The type 72, the small Chinese mine, that gives off a very small signal. So you have to have the sensitivity of your mine detectors set very high and you get a little bleep. Also obviously the depth under the ground will affect the signal.

EB: So now he’s actually detected metal. What is this guy going to do? Right, at the moment, he’s just clearing off the vegetation so he can get a proper probe in. And then he’ll use his probe… EB: What is the probe? It’s metal prongs, so like a very large fork. And he’ll go in at an angle of about 5 degrees, then 10 degrees. EB: Underneath the ground. Into the ground at an angle of about 10 degrees, so between the ground and the fork. Until he finds some resistance. If he doesn’t find resistance, he’ll slowly increase his angle, moving backwards and forwards, just scraping the soil off, very slowly, maybe just using his fingers. Just removing the soil until he finds the cause of the signal. EB: How dangerous is it? It’s dangerous. That is probably the most dangerous part of the operation, it’s when you are actually probing onto the mine.

EB: I notice they all have protection. They have flak jackets, and they have something to protect their faces. But they have nothing to protect their hands. The reason the guys don’t wear gloves is that they lose sensitivity in their hands. Now that could be sensitivity in feeling the probe feeling something or it could be the sensitivity in brushing it off. They make themselves more at risk. Hopefully it’ll be a case of flash pins. The armor they’ve got was tested on state mines in Afghanistan, and it’s saved the lives of at least five people so far. It’s reckoned that our deminers are probably the best protected in the world at the moment with this kit.

EB: Have any of the deminers here been injured so far? None have been injured so far, touch wood, while demining with us. Over half of our deminers actually have shrapnel inside them from the siege of Kuito, and you can detect the shrapnel with our detectors. So, if you run a detector over our deminers, you’ll get a signal. The logic behind most mines is that they’re designed to wound rather than kill because a wounded man will require two men to carry him off the battlefield, a doctor, medical treatment and all the rest. Also, it can ruin your moral if one of your best mates has his leg blown off. Obviously, you are going to be less inclined to go forward and sort of press the battle. So the idea is to wound rather than to kill, although it can be the opposite. Sometimes they me used…an anti-personnel on top of an anti-tank mine, and then when you stand on that, the guy will be vaporized, which obviously has psychological effects as well. But usually the idea is maim rather than kill.

EB: How did they actually go and check this lane? They all have detectors, a German detector, which are very effective. Metal detectors which will find very small amounts of metal. Some of the mines have really just a drawing pin amount of metal. Just a little bit for the percussion cap and a little bit for the firing pin. So, they’re working in pairs. As you can see, they are wearing the ballistic chest protectors and face masks. The detector man sweeps the detector across the ground. When he gets a signal, he then indicates to the probe man where the signal is. The detector man then goes back 10 meters and squats. The probe man then probes in at a very low angle until he finds the cause of the signal. Then removes the cause of the signal and continues. If the cause of the signal is a mine or an explosive device, then he calls me and I’ll be able to destroy it.

EB: You’re the one who destroys all the explosives. Yep, the expat at this stage destroys all explosive devices found by the deminers. EB: Why is that? We’re trained, and we know what to do. At the moment, this team has only been running four months and the last thing we want to do is have a casualty from one of our Angolans who doesn’t know what he’s doing with explosives. EB: But in the long run, you actually want to train these people so they can do it themselves. Yeah, that is the plan. 4 or 5 years down the road, they will be completely self-sufficient. But hopefully within a year the team section commanders will be dealing with small anti-personnel mines. So it will be one charge and one mine and in time, we hope they will be capable of dealing with. Anything that may be suspicious, booby trapped or anything larger than that, they’ll still call the expat in.

EB: Have you already found a lot of explosives and ordinance here? At this site, we’ve actually only found five items of ordinance. We found the warhead from a B12 rocket, two mortars and two hand grenades. EB: But no mines. No mines. All five of those items would have ruined a child’s day if they picked it up and accidently triggered it, particularly in the case of the rocket. That was big enough to probably take down half the school.

EB: So perhaps you can explain what we’re actually going to do now. You’ve found mines and unexploded ordinance. What are you going to do now? In front of us is a cemetery which obviously, the locals have tidied it up. In the process of tidying it up, they’ve actually come across a few items of unexploded ordinance. These include 4 grenades, 2 60 mil mortars, an RPG and a rifle grenade. So I’m now going to establish a dems pit, demolitions pit, where I’ll put the unexploded ordinance into the pit. I’ll then place a charge on top, surround it with sandbags. Then we’ll move back to a safe area, and then I’ll blow it. That will hopefully destroy all the items and unexploded ordinance and making them safe. EB: Is this the way you get rid of all unexploded ordinance? In 95% of cases, yes. We’ll only defuse something under exceptional circumstances because that’s more dangerous, for example, if it was in the middle of a bridge or something. What we would usually do then is attach a rope of a couple of hundred meters of length and drag it somewhere safe and then blow it up. EB: Where do you get the explosives to destroy the ammunition? Well, that’s one of the biggest problems we’ve got at the moment. We get the explosives from the local military or the local police, although they view us with some suspicion. They think we’re spies. So they’re very loath to get us it. So we’re trying to obtain some from perhaps one of the embassies ‘cause the explosives and particularly the safety fuse and detonators we’re getting is of very low quality, which obviously is more dangerous.

EB: How many people are going to be involved in this operation right now? We have a police liaison officer, a paramedic, my interpreter, myself, and then we have 4 deminers who will go out into the perimeters, 200 meters away, in all directions to form a secure perimeter to stop anybody moving into the area. And then there’s a section commander who’s in charge of those to coordinate everything while I’m actually placing the charge. So he’ll be my eyes and my back, so to speak.

Get Pinto to get everybody out of the houses…on the loudspeaker.

Atenção! Atenção!

Until we do anything else, I don’t want to see that detonator or that explosive until I come back. I want them out of the way.

Leave them at the car until I come back.

What I’ve got here are 2 60 mm mortars, Chinese, that haven’t gone off. This one: either the fuse has snapped off on impact and it hasn’t gone bang or it has just been dropped into the firing or it has just been dropped into the firing tube and it hasn’t gone bang. So they’ve taken it out and left it at the site. This one: obviously there was an indication that perhaps the people weren’t trained properly ‘cause they’ve actually left the arming pit in the fuse. So, like a hand grenade, you’ve got to pull the pin before you throw it. A mortar, you’ve got to pull the pin on the fuse before you fire it. EB: It’s not actually dangerous to hold these things in your hand at the moment, is it? It could be. There as safe as can be but they are still explosive devices, so unless you know what you are doing, nobody should ever pick up items like this. EB: OK, why don’t you put them with the rest of the stuff. There’s people on either side. There’s one down to the bottom. Yeah. Right. Nobody else around. OK. You keep an eye on the end of this cable. I don’t want anybody to touch this cable while I’m down there. EB: What are you going to do now? Do you want to come and see what I’ve done, and then if you leave, I’ll finish up. Once you’ve left, I’ll finish off.

EB: So, you’ve sealed off the entire cemetery now. Well, we’ve sealed off a perimeter of probably 150 meters, probably more actually, probably 200 meters. As you’ll see here, everything closed. The actual dems pit in sandbags which will keep the blast and the fragmentation in, so there shouldn’t be any bits flying around. As you can see, we dug a little dems pit here, surrounded by the sandbags. What I’m going to do now is place 3 200 gram blocks of TNT over the unexploded items, which will channel all the blast down into the ground, directing the fragmentation in. So, in effect, we’ve got three precautions. We’ve got the pit itself, then the sandbags, then the actual blast will be downwards, so it will blow all the fragmentation and the items down into the ground. EB: So you don’t actually need to cover the hole then? No, otherwise the sandbags will fly everywhere. Once you move on, I’ll move these sandbags in a bit closer. But obviously I’ve got to place the charge before doing that.

BLAST

When you left, I piled the sandbags on top. As you can see, that’s what’s left of the sandbags. EB: There around 5 or 10 meters away from here. There’ll all scattered. But that helped compress the blast in. What Artur is doing now is he’s digging the pit out to ensure that we destroyed everything. So, this is a piece from a mortar. There’s a piece from a grenade there. And so we just ensure that everything has been destroyed. So he’s very carefully digging the pit out. EB: So, you’re going to put this back in the pit afterwards? We just shove that all back in, yeah, unless you want it as a momento. EB: How many explosives destroy on a daily basis? Does it happen every single day? As I mentioned earlier, the problem we’ve got is that we can’t get a steady source of explosives. The military: one day they can give us it and the next day they won’t. If we could get a regular supply of explosives, we could probably do 4 or 5 of these a day, easily. EB: And for every explosion, there are around 10 explosives? It depends. One of my colleagues destroyed 40 items in one blow last week. Sometimes, it’s a single one. I’m going to go down the road now and blow a single mortar. It’s the same rigamarole for 1 or for 40. So, it just depends on the situation.

EB: Do you blow these items up all over town or is it in certain areas? We try and blow them in nice, safe areas. This was an excellent location because we’ve got good visibility. There’s no chance of people around, good control. Nobody is going to suffer from a bang here. In the middle of town, it either takes a lot more involvement, clearing out all the buildings or we actually move the item. So that’s 10 things now that…there are 10 kids that are not going to blow their hands off. EB: That’s what this is all about. Yes. This is to improve people’s lives. There’s nothing worse than seeing a little girl or a little boy walking around with no legs or no hands. I think it’s the saddest thing in the world.

Sadder yet is seeing a center for amputee children in Luanda. The kids have all lost feet, legs, hands or arms because of mines or unexploded ordinance. They’re among the lucky ones: they are awaiting a flight to Germany to get artificial limbs. No such factory exists in Angola yet, despite the 70-thousand amputees. The 400 kids in the center get about as best they can: some have only lost part of a foot, so they can hobble about. Others have lost a leg below the knee and they hop. The saddest are those who have lost their feet. They cannot stand so they have sandals attached to their knees and move forward with their hands. Eduardo, a 13-year-old, comes from Malange, one of the provinces which suffered most heavily during the last war. He arrived in Luanda several months ago, and, he says, he’s now awaiting a flight to Germany.

The social worker had to coax the answers out of Eduardo. Like so many mine victims, especially the children, he just stared at his stump…in disbelief. His story came out slowly: he was out with his mother and sister and he stepped on a wire. It was a bomb, he says, and it cut off his foot.

There is so much pain in Eduardo’s face that the five of us in the room have a hard time keeping our emotions in check. He says he felt dizzy when his foot was blown off. Yes, he heard the explosion. His mother took him to the hospital. He was there for 20 days. When they amputated his foot, he cried, he says, and yes, now he finds it difficult to play.

He says he wants to study when he gets older and become a doctor, in a hospital, a doctor for children…

“Seeds of Death” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Werner van Peppen. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.