Mozambique faces new danger as floods displace buried land mines
CMOAMBA, Mozambique (AP) – With his mine detector humming, Sebastian Mauricio drops to his knees and sifts through the soggy soil inch by inch for 10 minutes before deciding it’s a false lead – nothing more than natural metals in riverbank sand. He advances another yard.
Even in the best of times, finding the estimated 2 million mines left over from Mozambique’s 16-year civil war is painstaking work. Now, the job has been made even more complicated – and dangerous – by the surging flood waters that almost certainly uprooted thousands of mines and washed them downstream.
”Everything has changed,” said Donald Steinberg, President Clinton’s special representative for global demining.
”How far did the mines move?” said Jackie D’Almeida, a mine-clearing expert in Mozambique. ”We have no way of knowing.”
D’Almeida leads a 500-man team that has been steadily removing and deactivating mines since shortly after the war ended in 1992. Their years of toil have uncovered 13,000 mines – and about 10 million pieces of harmless metal – in this southeast African nation nearly twice the size of California.
The work has also made 2,500 miles of roads safe for Mozambicans to go to their fields.
But in the last three weeks, heavy rains have pounded the land and rivers overflowed their banks. Aid workers expect a death toll in the thousands. Up to a million Mozambicans lost their homes, crops or other property. The rains that temporarily halted relief efforts let up Friday, permitting helicopters and airplanes to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of flood victims.
More than 1,000 minefields had been identified across Mozambique. D’Almeida said the floods submerged perhaps 100 of them, but his team has not been able to reach remote areas where mines are reported to have shifted.
It is clear, however, that much of the team’s efforts to map the fields now may be essentially worthless.
Gone now are the sticks that once marked the minefields, along with the red-and-white signposts emblazoned with a skull and crossbones. More importantly, the demining teams have no idea where the old mines will be once the waters subside.
”This is going to be a nightmare for us,” D’Almeida said.
On Friday, several mine clearers and two U.S.-trained German shepherd dogs were trying to establish an explosive-free corridor to reach downed power pylons along the Nkomati River, northwest of the capital Maputo.
The river’s muddy waters have receded, but lurking in the mud and shallow ponds may be land mines washed from upstream. Workers have refused to erect new pylons until the ground is swept for mines.
”Normally, mines are put in a place that makes rational military sense, and when you find the field, you can fence it off,” said Jacob Kaarsbo, who helps run the mine clearing project for the U.N. Development Program.
Not so in Mozambique – during the civil war, the government army and rebel fighters sowed land mines indiscriminately and left no records or maps of their location.
As a result, minefields claim the limbs and lives of the most innocent: women and children working and playing. Shortly after the war, there were an average of 40 mine accidents a month, and about 15 were fatal. More than 7,000 Mozambicans have been fitted with prostheses after land mines claimed their limbs.
The mine-clearing effort, combined with an extensive education campaign, had recently reduced the number of accidents to about four a month.
As flood survivors return to their previously safe homes and fields, that is likely to change soon, Steinberg said by telephone from Washington.
”They are going to cause a huge problem. We will have accidents. No question.”