x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Zimbabwe battles conflict's explosive legacy

Thirty years after the end of Zimbabwe's civil war, landmines continue to exact a heavy toll, killing and maiming people and livestock.

BULAWAYO // Thirty years after the end of Zimbabwe's civil war, landmines continue to exact a heavy toll, killing and maiming people and livestock, and rendering large swathes of valuable land unusable. A combination of sanctions and a ruined economy, which many blame on Robert Mugabe's land redistribution policies, has left the country with little money to spare for crucial demining efforts.

Zimbabwe is struggling to clear seven vast minefields, mostly in the western and north-eastern border areas with Zambia and Mozambique, where millions of the anti-personnel explosives were planted during the country's liberation war from 1965-1979. "It is a life of fear for our people," said Fungai Mbekwa, the provincial administrator of Manicaland province, which has three of the seven minefields.

"Their personal security is at risk always, and in terms of development, there are areas where we don't encroach, lest people are blown up." The latest reported victim, Fadzai Chitembwe, five, died in February, after accidentally detonating a landmine by lying on it in Rushinga, near the Mozambican border. A signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which bans the use, production and stockpiling of landmines, Zimbabwe had about 2.6 million anti-personnel landmines remaining in an area of 1,119 square kilometres in 1980, according to Landmine Monitor, a global research organisation.

Now, the estimated contaminated area is 813 square kilometres. Of the seven minefields, only the one around Victoria Falls near Zambia was completely cleared. Zimbabwe failed to meet the treaty's March 2009 deadline for completely clearing its territory of mines. Gonarezhou, Zimbabwe's second-largest game park, is also heavily mined. As a result, progress in developing the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, a 35,000-square kilometre animal sanctuary that brings together Gonarezhou with two other adjacent parks in Mozambique and South Africa, is being hindered. Hatiwande Hama, the project co-ordinator for Might Hope Demining Services International, said his company needs US$720,000 (Dh2.6m) to de-mine a stretch of 70km in Gonarezhou on a voluntary contract.

The de-mining firm has so far only received US$2,000 from the National Social Security Authority, a government entity, while Zimbabwe Defence Industries, a local arms manufacturer has donated one tonne of explosives for use in destroying extracted landmines. "We need more assistance," Mr Hama said. "But I suppose our failure as a company to raise enough for the Gonarezhou project highlights the bigger problem facing the country in our efforts of clearing landmines in our territory."

Zimbabwe, which is facing a 10-year long economic crisis, is failing to clear the landmines because of financial constraints. The European Union and the US suspended disbursements to support landmine clearance in 2000, after political disagreements with Mr Mugabe, the president. In its 2008 report, Landmine Monitor said Zimbabwe needed US$49 million to fully rid itself of landmines. "As a consequence of international economic sanctions," said the report, "Zimbabwe has not received any international support since 2002, which is the main reason for the slow pace of clearance. Old equipment has also reduced clearance capacity since 2000."

The report estimates that 1,550 people have been killed by landmines since 1980. "It is further estimated that landmines have blocked access to 300 square km of communal land, 107 square km of commercial farm land and 50 square km of game parks, plus an unknown quantity of tea and timber plantations, and border posts," the report said. Observers said many more incidents of landmine injuries and deaths go unreported because mined areas are remote.

Martin Rupiya, author of the book, Landmines in Zimbabwe: A Deadly Legacy, wrote in a 1995 paper that the white settler army planted most of the mines to prevent infiltration by liberation forces who fought from bases in Mozambique and Zambia. The nationalists, however, also used the mines after securing them from communist allies in the Eastern Bloc and China. "Because mine warfare sought to separate the local population from the infiltrating guerrillas ? 87 per cent of the minefields run alongside communal areas, making this group still the most threatened by the continued existence of the mines," Mr Rupiya said. He added that fences around minefields were either stolen or had collapsed over time, while some landmines have been displaced from their original positions through erosion. Mr Mbekwa said during the early days of Mr Mugabe's land seizure programme in 2000, some peasants had to be relocated from farms they had taken over in Manicaland's Burma Valley after some were killed by landmines. "In our province, there is no de-mining taking place," said Mr Mbekwa, the provincial administrator. "We have appealed to the army to help but they have not been able to do that because, as you know, the country does not have resources." tmpofu@thenational.ae