Cuito Cuanavale Journal: In Angolan Town, Land Mines Still Lurk ‘Behind Every Bush’

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Today, as populations have swelled with Angola’s postwar economic recovery, communities now ring the city’s outskirts and villagers are living next to still-active minefields. But the unearthed land mines have stunted Cuito Cuanavale’s growth and impeded government plans to turn the battlefield into a Gettysburg-like tourist attraction.

While the city’s center has been cleared, villages press hard against minefields containing explosives set by Cubans, who supported the Angolan government. On the other side of the city, an 18-mile-long defensive strip, meticulously planted with mines by apartheid South Africa’s soldiers, who backed Angolan rebels, remains untouched.

“Angola has more different mine varieties than most mine-affected countries,” said Gerhard Zank, the country manager of the Halo Trust, a private British organization that clears land mines in Angola and other countries. Over the years, the organization’s deminers have found mines from at least 22 countries in Angola, including the former Soviet Union and East Germany, Mr. Zank said.


A destroyed South African tank in Cuito Cuanavale, the city in southeastern Angola that was one of the last great battlefields of the Cold War. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

Immediately after gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola slipped into a brutal civil war pitting two former liberation movements.

The civil war then became one of the most heated Cold War conflicts on the continent. The Eastern bloc backed the Angola government led by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or the M.P.L.A., with Cuba sending in troops. The West supported the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or Unita, as the United States’ Cold War ally, apartheid South Africa, sent troops to Angola.

The Angolans and their respective allies clashed in Cuito Cuanavale in the late 1980s in one of the last century’s biggest battles in Africa.

Neither side scored a decisive victory. But in Angola and the rest of southern Africa, the battle — and not the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union — is regarded as the turning point that eventually led to the liberation of much of southern Africa and the end of apartheid in South Africa.


A Halo Trust deminer using a metal detector to find mines in Cuito Cuanavale. Over the years, Halo Trust deminers have found mines from at least 22 countries in Angola, including the former Soviet Union and East Germany. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

“If it wasn’t for this battle, I can surely say that Nelson Mandela would have died in prison and Namibia wouldn’t have achieved its independence,” said Brig. Jose Roque Oliveira, the department head of the government’s National Intersectoral Commission for Demining and Humanitarian Assistance.

Whatever the battle’s significance, it turned Cuito Cuanavale into what Mr. Zank calls the “most mined town in Africa.”

Of the 93,000 mines that the Halo Trust has cleared in Angola in the last two decades, more than a third of them were taken out of Cuito Cuanavale. Tens of thousands more are still believed left in the city.

Nationwide, about 32,000 acres of confirmed minefields need to be cleared, and 88,000 acres of suspected areas need to be verified as safe, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.


Women selling potatoes at a market along the road linking Huambo and Menongue, the capital of Cuando Cubango Province in Angola, which were heavily mined during the civil war. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

Angola was required to clear all such mines from its territory by 2018 under a global treaty banning antipersonnel land mines. But Angolan officials say they will be unable to complete the work before 2025.

At its current rate of demining, Angola won’t be free of land mines until “beyond the year 2040,” said Constance Arvis, the deputy chief of mission at the United States Embassy in Angola. The United States, which has been the biggest donor for demining efforts in Angola, has earmarked $4 million this year.

Decreases in international funding have also affected nongovernmental groups, forcing private demining organizations like Halo to slash their work force.

Officials at the government’s Commission for Demining said that funding was also a problem for the government. Because of a drop in the global price of oil, Angola’s main export, the government’s demining budget has been cut by 60 percent, they said. The Angolan government has focused its demining efforts exclusively on areas of public works, leaving other areas to foreign donors and private demining organizations.


A Halo Trust deminer leaving on his motorcycle. At its current rate of demining, Angola won’t be free of land mines until “beyond the year 2040,” said Constance Arvis, the deputy chief of mission at the United States Embassy in Angola. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times

Critics say that the government — which enjoyed an oil boom for most of the last decade — did not have to rely on outsiders to fund demining work. “They could have done much more themselves,” said Alcides Sakala, a senior official at Unita, now the main opposition political party.

Clearing one mine costs Halo more than $1,500, Mr. Zank said. It is painstaking work, requiring deminers to work on a small patch of ground for hours, moving slowly forward on their knees.

In Huambo, a province that Halo has almost finished clearing, three new hires were completing their training recently.

One of them, Lino Domingos, 27, lived in San Antonio, a neighborhood near the center of the city of Huambo that Diana, Princess of Wales, visited two decades ago to raise awareness of the dangers of antipersonnel land mines.

Mr. Domingos knew the painful toll that the mines were inflicting in his community. One of his older sisters was killed after stepping on a mine while walking to the family’s crops a couple of miles away. The next day, another sister was killed by a mine while looking for firewood.

“I was always afraid after that,” Mr. Domingos said. “When my mother would tell me to go with her to the crops, I’d refuse. I’d just stay home looking after my younger brothers.”

A decade later, after the area was demined, Mr. Domingos said he finally felt free.

“Now people can move from place to place without worrying,” he said.

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