March 25, 2003

Urgent action against land mines needed

"Thousands of people are in danger of dying because of access problems." This harsh assessment, given to Refugees International by the World Food Program (WFP) in January, underscores the impact of land mines in Angola. An estimated 400,000 vulnerable Angolans, accessible at long last immediately following the April 2002 peace agreement between the Government of Angola and UNITA, now find themselves again cut off from vital humanitarian assistance due to the drastic increase in land mine accidents on important access roads. Poor infrastructure has further impeded non-governmental organizations from reaching populations in need as key bridges are broken and road conditions have worsened due to the onset of the rainy season.

Since November alone, land mine accidents on roads have caused 50 civilian deaths, including 13 aid workers killed and numerous others injured. Before the rains began, mine accidents on these same roads were limited. The increase in accidents is due to more traffic, but also to the rains, which have softened the roads, causing mines to shift and making them more prone to detonation. "Mines are the biggest issue affecting all of us here, " one NGO Director told RI. One and a half million internally displaced persons (IDPs) have already returned home, many to Angola's most mined provinces, and 90,000 refugees are back as well. With more IDPs on their way home and official refugee repatriations starting in June, more people will be faced with the dangers of mines and the lack of access to assistance that they cause.

Humanitarian organizations, poised to continue the life-saving assistance that they started after the peace agreement, are desperate for action. "NGOs are so frustrated over the lack of mine clearance that they are trying to think of ways to get money to demining organizations themselves. Without more help from the demining NGOs, we can do nothing," one medical aid worker told RI. These frustrations are echoed by other NGO representatives, one of whom stated, "We can't do our work, and mine efforts are not as fast as we want them to be. Only 10% of our requests to demining organizations were met, leaving us unable to provide valuable water points to 60% of our target population."

The drastic reduction in access affects both IDPs and refugees. Elena is a widow who returned to her hometown in Huambo province last October. She received some assistance from aid organizations until an anti-tank mine killed 13 people and injured 20 more on the road to her town. Although some additional aid was sent to distribution points 50 kilometers away, she was unable to get her full ration as one third of the food was used to pay for its transport. The lack of sufficient food aid following the land mine accident was one of the reasons contributing to Elena's decision to leave her home and return to her abandoned IDP camp.

Although there is no easy answer to solve the problem of decreased access, UN agencies and NGOs have taken some bold steps. WFP has initiated life-saving but costly airdrops to some areas. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), accompanied by WFP, have ventured over mined roads using armored vehicles as a temporary measure. Both call for immediate emergency demining on access roads so that populations with critical needs can be reached without resorting to costly and dangerous measures.

The slow pace of demining can be increased through the use of more human and technical resources. One technical solution is the "Chubby," a South African mobile mine detection and clearance vehicle. While one Chubby can clear an average of eight kilometers in one day using only three people, manual demining involves two teams (24 people) working from one to two weeks to clear just one kilometer. In February, a Chubby was sent to Huambo province, raising hopes that access can be quickly increased. "We need three more Chubbies for the other provinces so they can work simultaneously," one manager of a mine organization using the Chubby informed RI. While the Chubby is efficient, it comes with a hefty price tag: one million U.S. dollars, including transportation costs within Africa.

Donors, frustrated with the slow pace of demining, should take note of the progress that has been made. A manager of a leading mine action organization explained, "The problem is solvable. We have already cleared 30% of the minefields in the Central Highlands. With support from the donor community we can increase capacity and in five year's time have the Central Highlands' mine problem resolved." In the meantime, donors must take action now so that people can return home and get the life-saving assistance they need to gain self-sufficiency and contribute to the recovery of Angola. As one head of a humanitarian agency urged, "[Demining] has to be a priority for everyone because it's connected to everything we do."

Refugees International therefore recommends that the Government of Angola repairs bridges, roads and airstrips to facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid, provides all relevant information, including the location of mines, to facilitate mine action and provide human resources from the police and military, provides funding for humanitarian demining and other mine action initiatives, and speeds up customs clearance of demining equipment held up in port and eliminate "fees." The UNITA should assist mine action organizations by providing all relevant information, including the location of mines, to facilitate mine action. The donors should provide immediate funding for emergency mine clearance efforts, including the provision of additional Chubbies, should boost NGO capacity by funding mine action equipment and logistical support, fund an information database of mine locations and incidents at the field level, managed by a mine organization and fund more "Chubby" machines including budgets for their maintenance costs. (Refugees International, Washington, DC)

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