Digging up Angola's deadly litter

Rosita Domina propels herself off the tree stump in her backyard with her one arm, landing with a thud on the dirt ground.

Fifteen years ago, walking in the fields with her baby sister strapped to her back, Ms. Domina set off a land mine and subsequently lost one arm and both legs above the knees.

"It was a long time ago," she says as she pulls herself onto a low stool. "I am not angry anymore."

In Kuito, known as the land-mine capital of the world, Domina's story is not unusual.

United Nations officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, charge that both sides in the ongoing civil war in Angola continue to lay mines.

According to UN figures, an estimated 9 million to 10 million undetonated land mines lie scattered around this war-torn country. With a population of 13 million, Angola has the dubious distinction of having the most land mines per person in the world, and, after Afghanistan, the second highest number of mines overall.

The issue of land mines has been given increased attention in recent years, thanks in part to the championing of the cause by the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and to the awarding of the 1997 Nobel prize to members of the movement to ban the devices. The movement's efforts culminated in the 1999 Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use, storage, production, and sale of land mines.

Everyone involved in Angola's decades-old war - the Portuguese colonizers; the American, Russian, Cuban, and South African cold warriors; and most especially the local warring parties themselves, the government's Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the rebel's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) - has planted mines here.

Although the Angolan government is a signatory to the Ottawa agreement, it has yet to ratify the treaty. The opposition UNITA was never a signatory.

Still, the Halo Trust, a British charity which has been de-mining in Angola since 1994, says that the eventual removal of all mines in the country is possible and that those sections of the country that they have cleared remain clean. The organization bases its optimistic assertion in part on a much lower estimate of the number of land mines in Angola, saying that the number is closer to 200,000 than 10 million.

Although international non-governmental organizations, the UN, and various governments are working to de-mine the world, deaths and injuries continue. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), every year approximately 24,000 people are maimed or killed by the small pieces of metal. Experts estimate that there are still 100 million land mines spread around some 64 countries of the globe.

Until the Ottawa Treaty came into force, close to 40 countries produced the deadly weapons, and, as David Fredrick, Angola director of the Halo Trust says, "pretty much all those countries managed to dump their devices here."

Once laid, land mines may remain active for up to 50 years. Getting rid of them is a costly and slow process. The mines, which cost as little as $3 each to manufacture, easily cost up to $1,000 each to remove. Sometimes, as in the case of new plastic versions, they cannot be found by metal detectors. Mines can be sown at rates of over a 1,000 a minute, but it can take a skilled de-mining expert an entire day to clear 20 to 50 square meters.

It is estimated that some 30 percent of land mine injuries require an amputation. To date, there are approximately 70,000 land mine amputees in Angola, 8,000 of them children under the age of 15. One Russian-made device, say experts, requires just half a pound of pressure to detonate.

Most prosthesis centers in Angola were forced to close down during the years of fighting, and there is a backlog.

The ICRC, which runs three out of the 10 existing such centers in Angola, estimates that while about 4,000 amputees are fitted annually, there are anywhere between 30,000 to 80,000 people at any one time waiting for artificial limbs.

Laurinda Felicia, is, relatively speaking, one of the lucky ones. She hobbles around her small village outside Kuito with two well-fitted artificial legs and a healthy sense of self.

Last year, Laurinda was traveling to a nearby village in a truck filled with people when a land mine exploded beneath the vehicle, killing 20 and injuring more than 100.

"I was very shy after that," she says. "I was so little. I was thin because I had lost so much blood and small because I had my legs cut off.... I did not have anyone to play with. I was of no use to anyone."

A war orphan, Laurinda was living with her brother Danny in the cramped kitchen quarters of her uncle's hut until the Irish NGO Concern helped her build her own small shack.

The organization works with groups of amputees in Kuito, distributing small loans to start businesses, offering job training courses, helping with basic needs, and encouraging the amputees to support one another.

In a country where millions are displaced, hungry, and unemployed, having a disability makes life all that much harder.

Concern has found that many amputees are forced to spend their food money on medication, many women amputees have been abandoned by their husbands, and many of the men amputees have turned to drinking.

"I tell others who are sad to have hope," says Laurinda. "Otherwise we would just die. This way I just keep walking forward. Slow steps, but they are going forward."

Domina, a beautiful young woman with a ready smile, agrees.

"At first I had some anger. Some frustration. But what's the point?," she says. "I had to think of how to get food and other very important things."

Anyway, she concludes, "at least I am not alone.... I look around and realize I am one of many. I'm not alone."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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