ANGOLA: 'Our choice was to take the risk or to starve' say accident survivors

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Like many poor families in Moxico Province, Alfredo Ramos Shimishi, his wife and nine children have two options when attempting to earn a livelihood on land they know is contaminated by landmines - "to take the risk or to starve".

Sixty-six year old Alfredo was a teacher in a Luena primary school in the early 1980s, until one day in 1986 he stepped on a landmine while collecting firewood.

He lost his right leg and had to stay in hospital for three months. When he finally recovered, he found he had lost his job. The government authorities felt that his students would not concentrate on their lessons and would not pay attention to a teacher who was an amputee.

Nearly three decades of conflict has left Angola as one of the most landmine- and unexploded ordnance-contaminated countries in the world. And Moxico is its worst-affected province.

In 2004, Alfredo's wife Florinda and his son Antonio, who was 14 at the time, were carrying charcoal back from the bush. Antonio had a large sack on his back to help his mother. The burden became too heavy and when Antonio stopped to rest next to the path he stepped on a landmine. The blast destroyed his right leg and sent shrapnel into his mother's body, damaging her vision.

Like his father before him, Antonio says he knew that the area was mined. "I was afraid to pass through that area. I knew there were many mines there, but I didn't have a choice. I had to help my mother. We don't have any other land to use; we don't have transport to go further away to find different land. We had to survive somehow; we had to cultivate our food somewhere, to make charcoal to sell. Our choice was to take the risk or to starve."

As a result of her injuries, Florinda cannot work or do household chores such as cooking, fetching water or caring for the children because of the pain in her legs and arms. She no longer leaves the house.

Having attempted to flee the area, but failing due to the heavy fighting, the family now live in the bairro (neighbourhood) of 4 de Fevereiro on the edge of Luena.

Nearly 1.4 million square metres in size, the area has been designated by local authorities for housing and agricultural development.

Due to its strategic importance, 4 de Fevereiro was highly contested during the war and heavily mined. Because the area is quite large, MAG is clearing it by sectors. As soon as a section is finished, it can be handed back to the community so that they can begin building and developing the land rather than waiting until the entire zone is finished.

Such is the demand for space that some families began moving to plots that are in close proximity to where the deminers are continuing to clear land. In cooperation with the national authority for demining and humanitarian assistance, CNIDAH, MAG's Community Liaison team went house-to-house to talk to the homeowners and to alert them to the dangers of this practice, reinforcing Mine Risk Education messages on the importance of staying out of mined areas and obeying the warning signs.

"I have no choice but to go and grow food and make the charcoal, but I am very afraid," says Alfredo. "I even found mines right where I was working. When that happened, I was so afraid I even started to cry. I thought I was going to die.

"I reported the mines to MAG and they came to check the area where I work. They found three land mines and a grenade. It was only after MAG came to me and told me that my plot of land was now safe that I could go back there.

"I am very happy that MAG is clearing 4 de Fevereiro. The place where I built my house is safe and now the land where I go to work is also safe, but there is still danger in many places where we must go. It is like the war. When the war ended there was peace. When MAG finishes clearing the mines, they will remove the threat left over from the war. There will be more land for agriculture and also for housing development. People will be able to live again."

MAG would like to express its thanks to the following donors to its Angola operations: Chevron Oil - Angola; UK Department for International Development (DFID); Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, United States Department of State. Click on Tags below for related articles.