Angola

Oxfam: Diary from Angola - Hidden threat

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Kate Kilpatrick is working with Oxfam GB in Angola for six months. She will be writing regularly about her impressions of the country, its people and the work we are doing there.
The UN estimates that there are between 500,000-700,000 mines, and an additional two million unexploded devices hidden in Angolan soil.

Mines are becoming a constant preoccupation for the humanitarian community here.

In November, seven people died and six were seriously injured when a Médecins sans Frontières vehicle drove over an anti-tank mine near Mavinga, in the south-east of Angola.

Just after this, we received news that our field teams narrowly missed a land-mine explosion on a road near Huambo. The mine exploded under a charcoal truck just 20 minutes after an Oxfam vehicle had passed.

A second Oxfam vehicle was just behind the truck, witnessing the explosion and its aftermath. Of the three people in the truck, one died and two were seriously injured. The Oxfam staff were forced to remain on the road until the demining agency Halo came several days later to evacuate them with an armoured vehicle.

This is not the first such incident in Huambo province - over the past few weeks there have been several mine accidents here. Many of the explosions have been located on the roads to UNITA reception areas.

There is a possibility that some of these mines are newly planted mines. But planted by whom, and why? Perhaps by disgruntled UNITA soldiers who are unhappy with the outcomes of the peace process? Perhaps by those in the army who want the UNITA reception areas to close as quickly as possible? No-one has claimed responsibility for the incidents, however.

Don Price, from the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has a different theory: 'Over the past few months, since the war ended, the numbers of heavy vehicles on Angola's roads has increased dramatically. This, combined with the rains - which often mean that vehicles deviate from their conventional path on the roads as the surface turns to mud - could spell an increased incidence of mine accidents due to old mines.'

Implications for Oxfam

Whatever the explanations for the increase in mine explosions, the implications for our teams are immediate. We put all of our programme work in Huambo on hold temporarily, and agreed that work in the UNITA reception areas should stop.

These are not easy decisions - the untargeted nature of mines means that we cannot easily assess the risks that our staff face in their travel to the field. But the MSF accident has been sobering for all of us, reminding us of our vulnerability, and our inability to control this risk.

Demining

Demining is taking place, but only slowly. A demining team can take a whole day to demine ten kilometres of road, or less. Angola is a vast country, and mines are not just located on roads and verges, but spread through fields and farmland, following the trajectory of the war.

The UN estimates that there are between 500,000-700,000 mines, and an additional two million unexploded devices hidden in Angolan soil. Unless the demining operation receives an injection of funding for training and equipment, it will be as much as a decade before the land is cleared. In the meantime, civilians will continue to lose life and limb, long after the fighting has ceased.