Nhamatanda, Mozambique – A single step can change a life forever.
Lazaro Virniz Rice was a soldier on patrol with the Mozambican army when he walked into a field next to the road. He stepped on a landmine, causing an explosion that blew off his left foot.
That was two decades ago. Rice, who was 23 at that time, said he cannot work anymore and is dependent on his family.
Hundreds of thousands of mines were planted across the southern African country of Mozambique during its war of independence from 1964-75 against Portugal, and a subsequent civil war from 1976-92. In 1992, a peace deal ended the civil war, but the explosives in the ground have continued to kill years later.
Fortunately, though, Rice’s nine children will likely grow up in a country without landmines. Mozambique is expected to be officially declared landmine-free soon, and its de-mining efforts have become a model for other countries affected by the weapons.
“The success of mine clearance in Mozambique gives hope that any country can deal with its mine problem,” said Amelie Chayer, a policy analyst at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).
Mine clearance remains a long, labour-intensive process, but techniques have improved and clearing all landmines in a country is feasible, Chayer told Al Jazeera.
|Mozambique will be declared landmine-free [Benjamin Durr]
“We used to hear a lot of predictions of ‘hundreds of years will be needed to reach a mine-free world’, but the latest data have completely busted this myth,” she said.
Progress in Mozambique and elsewhere indicates that a world without landmines could be achieved by 2025, Chayer added.
Mozambique’s last minefields
Not far from Rice’s community, one of Mozambique’s last remaining minefields is being cleared. A team from Handicap International, a nongovernmental organisation, is de-mining around a power supply line. During the civil war, government forces planted landmines to protect power line towers from sabotage.
An excavator with strong blades presses down the shrubbery, cutting tree branches. Once the area is accessible, human de-miners with metal detectors enter the danger zone.
Meanwhile, with its snout on the ground, a dog is wiggling through the grass. When it comes to de-mining, dogs are indeed man’s best friend. Using their keen sense of smell to sniff out explosives in the ground, dogs are about 30 times faster than human de-miners, according to Alan Johnson, head of operations at Handicap International’s Mozambique operation.
Johnson said he has never seen a dog hurt in the de-mining process. “They smell everything long before the point they would step on it,” he noted, adding dogs’ weight distribution makes them less likely to trigger the mines.
According to its initial plans, Mozambique had intended to become landmine-free by the end of 2009. However, the minefields turned out to be more than three times the estimated size. By the end of 2014, a total of 34.4 square kilometres will have been cleared.
Decline of the mine
Along with 161 other states, Mozambique is a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty, which prohibits the use, stockpiling and production of mines. The treaty marked a climax in the global struggle to ban landmines.
Since the Ottawa Treaty came into force, the use of landmines has declined sharply. According to the Landmine Monitor Report 2014, only five countries have used anti-personnel mines since 2009: Israel, Libya, Myanmar, Russia and Syria.
The United States is not a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty, but earlier this year the Obama administration promised to destroy its stockpiles of landmines, and to refrain from their use except for on the Korean peninsula. The border between South Korea, a US ally, and its archenemy North Korea is heavily mined.
“Landmines used to be in widespread use, and thanks to the Mine Ban Treaty they are now considered an absolutely unacceptable weapon,” said the ICBL’s Chayer.
Caring for survivors
But despite the progress, it is unclear whether the 2025 goal of a landmine-free world can be achieved. Minefields still exist in 56 countries. Although 40 countries are expected to become mine-free within the next five years, the others – especially Afghanistan and Iraq – will require much more work given the amount of landmines there.
Chayer stressed that mine clearance is not the end of the process, and that countries have an obligation towards landmine survivors and their families.
“This means medical care, crutches and wheelchairs – but also, and most importantly, access to schools and a way to earn a decent living,” she said.
In Mozambique, Chayer added, a great deal of progress on this front is needed.
Lazaro Virniz Rice said he does not receive a pension or other financial support from the state, even though he was a soldier in the Mozambican army.
Meanwhile, the area he lives in is almost mine-free. If it is not raining anymore, the de-miners will soon have cleared the last tower of the power line.
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