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Sometime in Africa

Good Riddance To The Mines Of Death

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It was heartening news that gave me hope; an end to a maelstrom of misery that has plagued the land and broken the lives of countless Africans.

I was staggered and relieved to hear that Mozambique has cleared its last landmine after 22 years of hard work by mine lifters – many of whom paid with their lives.

They used to call it the ‘red mist’ in the minefields of Mozambique; the air thick with blood of a brave man who had tried to remove a mine and failed.

Landmines are an evil that the world should be rid of. I saw them all in years reporting from Angola and Mozambique and hated every one: anti-tank mines, black widows, shoeboxes, cake tins, whatever you wanted to call them; they blew people to smithereens and maimed many more. Claymores worked on a tripwire that triggered a flying sheet of shrapnel that cuts you off at the knees. They were one of the biggest problems in the former battlefields of Africa. Troops would set them up around their camps at night to catch raiders; in the morning they would pack up and leave the tripwires, unmarked, for an unfortunate person to stumble to their death years later.

The sickest of them all were the Chinese mass-produced butterfly mines: tiny plastic explosives with wings. Planes used to drop them by the ton and they would flutter down in to bushes and grass. They were made in pretty colors to attract children. When a child grasped at them, the tiny mines would blow off an arm at the shoulder. They were designed to maim, rather than kill, on the grounds that the injured would be a burden on the economy of your enemy.

In the dark days of the civil war in Angola, in 1994, I saw the work of the little plastic mines. One late summer’s day, on the Ilha de Luanda, I took a walk along the spit of sandy beaches just off the coast of the capital. It used to be a tourist trap, but in war the Red Cross had set up huge tents to house hundreds upon hundreds of children without limbs.

As I walked to the tent, a multitude of children hobbled towards me. All were on crutches, one or two looked in pain, all of them tried to smile; strangers were rare in war torn Angola. Some were missing an arm, others a leg, one or two were missing both legs. They crowded around me, clamoring to clutch my hands. One or two brushed their cheeks gently over the back of my hand.

“Amigo (friend in Portuguese),” they said quietly.

I am not sentimental and when I am doing stories I have an objective, professional, detachment; on this day I couldn’t stop myself turning and shedding tears. Those children will be men now; in the dead of night, I often wonder how many had enough strength left to overcome the cruel start to their young lives.

This is just one reason why I celebrate the clearance of these evil devices from the red soil of Africa. I spent many days walking, one foot in front of the other, on the thin path through a minefield. They are dark and depressing places where you can often see the rotting remains of those who stepped astray and perished. Once, in Mozambique, engineers detonated an anti-tank mine, not too far from my left ear, knocking me flat – it hasn’t been the same since, a memory of those terrible places.

On that same tour of duty, we cleared an arms cache and a pile of landmines in a field near Chimoio in the border country in western Mozambique – once one of the most heavily mined strips of land in the world. The mine lifters blew it sky high bringing a shower of red hot fragments down on our heads, sending us diving for cover – they never show that in the movies.

As we drove off the farmer ran to our truck in tears. They were tears of joy; after decades of war he had his field back so he could plant again. In my mind’s eye I see him tilling his land at sunset. It soothes my soul.

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