Zimbabwe: Living with the dread of an invisible enemy

More than 30 years after the cessation of fighting along the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border, families and communities living within the 210 square kilometres that make up the region daily suffer the scourge of anti-personnel mines. Since 1980, more than 1,500 people and 120,000 livestock have been killed and 2,000 people have been maimed by mines on the Zimbabwean side of the border. The ICRC and the Zimbabwe Mine Action Centre (ZIMAC) have been working together for the past two years to increase the amount of mine-risk education carried out in communities affected by anti-personnel mines.

When Hlengani Mudzikiti (48), who lives in the village of Gwaivhi, stepped on an anti-personnel mine in 2010 he lost the lower part of his left leg, while his right leg was severely injured by the blast. Mudzikiti says that although he was aware of the presence of mines, when his cattle strayed into the minefield he followed the route his cattle had taken, assuming it was safe. None of his cattle were injured or killed.

During a visit to the Crooks Corner to Sango border post minefield, the Zimbabwean Minister of Defence Dr Sydney Sekeramayi, the ICRC’s Harare head of regional delegation, senior government officials and army commanders receive a briefing on the size of the minefield and the type of anti-personnel mine typically found in it from the commander of the unit responsible for removing the mines. The white dots on the ground indicate the patterns in which the mines were laid along a 53-kilometre length. After more than 30 years of rain, erosion and other climatic processes, the mines can be very difficult to find and remove.

Dressed in heavy protective clothing, the mine-removal team from the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) are briefed by a team leader before embarking on a simulation of a search for anti-personnel mines. The team work daily in gruelling temperatures averaging 39 degrees Celsius. No demining takes place during the rainy season (November to March) owing to the impact of rainfall and erosion on the state and position of mines. Roads made impassable by heavy rains within the wildlife conservation area that surrounds the minefields also prohibit safe evacuation of any personnel that may be injured.

A member of the ZNA mine-removal team carries out a simulated search for landmines. According to the Zimbabwe Mine Action Centre (ZIMAC), which supervises demining activities throughout the country, ZNA deminers can remove more than 175 anti-personnel mines daily from an area measuring over 3,000 square metres. In 2013, nearly 5,000 landmines have so far been removed and destroyed. However, ZIMAC estimates that over three million anti-personnel mines in six distinct minefields across Zimbabwe still need to be detected, removed and destroyed. Under international law, Zimbabwe must complete a survey of its minefields by 1 January 2015.

Chief Sengwe, the local traditional leader in the village of Gwaivhi, accepts a consignment of children’s exercise books giving guidance on how to identify and avoid anti-personnel mines from Zimbabwe’s Defence Minister Dr Sydney Sekeramayi. The ICRC and the Zimbabwe Mine Action Centre have been working together to increase the amount of mine-risk education carried out in communities affected by anti-personnel mines.

Philimon Sibanda (30), a Gwaivhi villager, shows what remains of his right leg after stepping on an anti-personnel mine while herding cattle in 2007. Philimon was unaware that the area was infested with mines. The lives of young people living in and around the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border are at risk from landmines, many being unaware of the dangerous remnants of a conflict that ended long before they were born.