The enduring legacy of landmines in Angola

Former Angolan soldiers who lost limbs during the war
Former Angolan soldiers, some of whom lost a leg in landmine accidents (© Eric Beauchemin)

One of the most lasting legacies of war in many countries are landmines. Somewhere between 60 and 100 million mines have been planted in over 70 countries. They kill or maim 3 people per hour or more than 26,000 people a year. One of the most heavily affected countries is Angola. It’s emerging from one of the longest and bloodiest wars in Africa, and landmines will cast a long shadow over Angolan society for years to come.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 26, 2002

This programme was part of a dossier wide-ranging dossier – Angola: Picking up the Pieces – that won the One World Broadcasting Trust New Media Award in 2000.


When I first came here in 1994, the streets of the capital Luanda were full of landmine victims. They’d come and bang on car windows or they’d roll up in wheelchairs, exhibiting their stumps and pleading for a few cents. I have seen many sorry sights in Africa, but I could never forget Luanda’s landmine victims. There were simply too many of them to forget.

Neves Ia Fostin
Neves Ia Fostin (© Eric Beauchemin)

Today, most of the landmine victims have disappeared from the city centre. They have come to places like Viana, a residential district about 30 kilometres from Luanda. Luanda’s vibrant, busy streets fade away as the asphalt turns to dirt. It’s here that I meet 36-year-old Neves Ia Fostin. At the age of 16, he had to drop out of school because he was drafted into the Angolan armed forces. They sent him far away from home, to a province in the southeast of the country that was the scene of some of the fiercest battles of Angola’s civil war. In 1984, at the age of 18, Neves lost his leg.

We were fighting the bandits, the UNITA rebels. We went on a mission into the bush because we never stopped in cities or towns. We lived our lives in the bush. We would get uniforms and when we came back from the bush, they would be nothing more than rags. When we came back from the mission, the enemy followed us to our position. At around midnight, they started to attack us. We tried to get away, but we wound up in a minefield.

When I stepped on the mine, I hardly felt anything. The problem is when you can see what’s happened to you, but if you can’t see, you don’t feel anything. I fell. I don’t even remember how I reached the ground. I tried to get up, but I fell back down. That’s when I started getting scared. I looked at my right leg and I saw that it was gone below the knee. I was bleeding heavily, and then I passed out. My comrades saw me, and they rescued me.

I couldn’t think because it was just something that happened to me. I couldn’t do anything about it. Later, I started to think that my life had been ruined, that I’d never be able to walk again. I thought I would never be able to stand up. I thought a thousand things. I was desperate. I thought I’m no one now.

25-year-old Mario Jorge Sacohuema started working as a deminer for the HALO Trust in 2000
Mario Jorge Sacohuema (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is Mario Jorge Sacohuema. I’m 25. I started working as a deminer for the HALO Trust in 2000. I had heard about the HALO Trust from family members and some friends who were already working for the organisation. They told me about the work and finally I got up the courage to apply.

I was given 21 days of training. The training wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t say it was difficult either. We had to learn the safety rules that need to be observed in a minefield. We also had to familiarise ourselves with the equipment and how the work is actually done.

It was very difficult. Entering a minefield for the first time is really hard. I was terrified that day. I worked very slowly, and whenever I had any doubts, I would ask my colleagues. Slowly, I got used to the work. I understood that it was a job like any other, as long as you obey the safety rules.

HALO Trust has been working here since 1994. We have cleared so far about 9000 mines and 87,000 UXOs.

Halo Trust
Halo Trust

UXOs are unexploded ordinance. José Pedro Agostinho is the deputy programme manager for the HALO Trust, one of several organisations doing demining work in Angola.

HALO has cleared a million square metres in Angola and this has already…land has been handed to the local communities. We have also cleared grounds for schools, hospitals, and bridges reconstruction. How much more area still remains to be cleared? In the areas that HALO works, we have surveyed about 494 different minefields. From that, we have cleared about 81 minefields. We have got to clear another 413 surveyed minefields. According to our records, what we have cleared so far, is 16% of the mine sites that we know.

We start at 7 o’clock in the morning after we’ve been properly equipped and put on our protective equipment. Every day, before we go into the minefields, one of us reads the HALO Trust’s safety rules. We all listen closely. Then, we go out into the minefields.

The mines are located where there’s vegetation. The first thing we do is cut the grass carefully and then we use probes. We also have metal detectors. If we hear a signal and think it’s a mine, we call our superiors and they demine it. If it’s some other type of metal object, we remove it and put it in the designated area. You have to be very alert because you never know what you are going to find. We work for 30 minutes, and then we take a 10-minute break. Our country is very hot, so during the break we drink water and relax.

We finish our day at 1:30. Then we go home. It’s hard to say how many metres I clear in a day. It really depends on the terrain, but I would say on average, I clear about 10 metres.

Different types of landmines
Different types of landmines

No one knows how many mines have been planted in Angola’s soil. The United Nations has put the figure at between 10 and 20 million…at least one mine for every Angolan. The HALO Trust, though, believes the figure is much, much lower.

We have surveyed, as I said, 494 mine sites, and on average, we find 36 mines per minefield. And this is for 3 provinces. So we say for the 3 provinces, we have got a total of about 17,784 mines on total. But we know that Angola has got 18 provinces and if we taking into account the number of minefields that we have surveyed in our provinces, multiply it by the average mines that we found in the minefield and then we can double it to make it sure, we won’t get to that figure. We estimated that there are about, maximum, maximum, 400,000 mines in the country.

The difference between the UN and the HALO Trust estimates is enormous, but for most Angolans, it’s not the total number that matters. A single landmine can make a large area of land unusable. Landmines are also seriously hampering the return of millions of people who were displaced or had to flee abroad to escape the fighting. People who ignore the advice of the United Nations and the Angolan government and go back to their homes are at great risk of being injured or killed by landmines. Over 70,000 Angolans have lost limbs as a result of mines.

GAC staff in Huambo
GAC staff in Huambo (© Eric Beauchemin)

Beware of mines. If you pick up a mine you could lose an arm. If you step on one, you could lose a leg. The song was written by GAC, the Children’s Support Group, which is based in Huambo, the capital of Bié province, in the Central Highlands. It is one of a number of organisations across Angola trying to raise awareness about the dangers of landmines. Marcelo Inácio is the secretary general of GAC.

We carry out campaigns to mobilise people, starting with community leaders such as elders and teachers. We show them what landmines and unexploded ordinance are. We tell them where mines are located. We also go to schools and present a play, using puppets, to warn children about the danger that landmines pose.

The puppet asks the children if they’ve heard about mines. She asks how many types of mines are there? 2 reply the children. That’s right, she says:  anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. The children are clearly enjoying the performance, but they’re also learning lessons that could save their lives or limbs.

We’ve got these days much less accidents in the population than before because obviously many areas got cleared from mines and people also became aware, due to the work that has been done of the danger that mines and UXO represent to them. In Bié province, we had recorded lately that three or four accidents come to the hospital every month. And sometimes the number fluctuates, but this is the number of people that come to the hospital and that we’ve got the records of. Obviously not all the accidents that happen in the whole province, because many people having accidents who have no access to come to the hospital because it’s too far away. We don’t know about those accidents, but the ones that we know about, about 3 or 4 accidents coming to the main Kuito Hospital.

Young landmine victims
Young landmine victims (© Eric Beauchemin)

The reception, where all patients are welcomed. Nobody is not welcome, wherever they come from and whatever disability they have. They will be registered here. Here on the wall board, you see the in-patients in our dormitory for the time being. We have 78 patients. For the time being, we only have 64 beds, so there is a little crowded.

Bomba Alta orthopedic centre in Bomba Alta
Bomba Alta orthopedic centre in Bomba Alta

Finn Christian Simonsen works at the Bomba Alta orthopaedic centre in Huambo, which is run by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC. It’s one of a number of orthopaedic centres that have been established in recent years in Angola. A decade ago, most landmine victims could only get treatment abroad.

In order to provide a good fitting of above-knee amputees we have these prepared models, brims, which we are using in the casting. That enables the technician to put more focus of other parts of the amputation stump and enables him to put more focus on the balance and the alignment of the amputee and his amputee stump during the casting process.

At the time, I had never seen amputees. I had never seen anyone walking with crutches or artificial limbs. The first person I met with a prosthesis was the doctor who treated me in Menongue. He gave me hope. He kept on telling me, ‘don’t get discouraged. Look, I too am an amputee, and I’m working.’ At first I didn’t believe him. He was well dressed. He was wearing shoes, so how could he be an amputee? He never showed me his artificial limb, but I noticed that he walked with a limp.

You have to have hope. When I arrived here, I saw many amputees, many, many amputees. I learned to walk with crutches. Three years later, in 1987, they gave me an artificial limb. It took so long because at the time, there was only one rehabilitation centre in Luanda. At first, it was really difficult because I thought I was going to fall. But I got used to it. I even started to play football. The first couple of days, I was afraid that the limb would come off and I would fall. But little by little, I got used to the idea and now I play really well.

We talk a lot amongst ourselves. We speak about everything, including our fears. We encourage each other a lot. Sometimes when we’re on a break, we joke about what would happen if one of us stepped on a mine. But I always say that that can’t happen as long as we observe the safety guidelines.

I remember one accident we had, but it wasn’t serious. We were working in a minefield and one of my colleagues caused an explosion. I think it was because he wasn’t following the rules. He lost his right thumb. We were all terrified when the mine exploded. The guy was pulled out and taken to hospital. We were afraid for several days, but no one stopped working. We encouraged each other and just carried on.

HALO Trust employees are fortunate: if they are involved in a landmine accident, they’re covered by insurance, and if they’re killed, their families will receive compensation. Ordinary Angolans though are left to their own devices, even those who fought in the Angolan army. In 1995, Neves and several dozen of his comrades, who were also injured in landmine accidents, occupied homes that had been built by the government for civil servants. They had been waiting for years for some type of government assistance.

Neves Ia Fostin
Neves Ia Fostin (© Eric Beauchemin)

Recently the Minister for War Veterans came here and told us lies. He said there are no disabled ex-servicemen here. He said he had given us furniture, but that’s not true. No one has received any furniture. Just go into the houses and have a look for yourself. Some people do have furnished houses, but they are former generals. Some of our brothers from UNITA also live here. They have decent houses and cars, but not us. I don’t know why that is. Not too long ago, there was a debate on the radio, and they asked the Interior Minister why former UNITA rebels are being treated better than those of us who helped defend the fatherland. He answered that the government would deal with that later. But when? We have been waiting for years and still we have received nothing.

The bitterness Neves and his comrades feel has only increased since the signing of the ceasefire in April 2002. Despite his anger, Neves knows that he is lucky. Several former servicemen in Viana lost both legs and are unable to provide for their families. Every couple of months they receive a handout from the government of about 200 kwanzas or about 6 and a half euros. It doesn’t go far in one of the most expensive cities in Africa. After Neves got his artificial limb in 1987, he decided to go back to school. He’s now working in a clinic helping people who’ve lost arms and legs. The clinic is several kilometres away and because there is no transport, it takes him up to three hours to walk to work.

There should at least be transport for the comrades who fought for our fatherland. The government should do something to help us. There’s a saying here that he who cultivates the land owns it. So why did we defend this land? It wasn’t so that we would benefit from the country’s natural resources. Who’s benefiting from our sacrifices? Why did we lose our legs?

War veterans in Viana, a neighbourhood 30 kilometres from Luanda
War veterans in Viana (© Eric Beauchemin)

I am very proud of the work I do because I feel I’m contributing to rid our country of landmines. Mines maim and kill people, including children and old people. Our demining work is helping to free people of this danger. That’s why we feel very proud. I want to continue doing this work until we’ve got rid of all the landmines here. One day there will be no more mines. And if it’s God’s wish, we will have a long life and we will see that day.

Our leaders seem to think that war is a game. But why didn’t they send their sons to defend our nation? I’ll tell you why: they knew that war is bad. They knew that if they sent their sons to fight, they would die or would come back wounded. So while they kept on proclaiming that the revolution continues, they sent their sons abroad to study and they sent us off to fight. That’s why I think they should do something to help us. But I know nothing will give me back my leg.