Don’t forget landmine victims

Mozambique was declared free of landmines in September 2015. Handicap International played a leading role there since launching its demining efforts in 1998. Deminers have since cleared more than 16 million square meters of land, neutralized 6,000 antipersonnel mines and 5,000 unexploded remnants of war. Grégory Le Blanc, Handicap International’s Head of Mission in the country, explains the benefits of this demining for the people of Mozambique who, until very recently, lived under the constant threat of mines. 

What role has Handicap International played in demining  in Mozambique?

From 2011 to 2015, we’ve been the lead actor in the demining sector, operating in the provinces of Sofala and Inhambane, which were still contaminated with mines. We cleared almost 10 million square meters of land, the equivalent of 140 soccer fields, to benefit the country’s 3 million inhabitants.

However, we have actually been working in the country for more than 30 years, covering the full range of humanitarian demining actions. We started by delivering rehabilitation care, then we ran campaigns to teach the population about the risks posed by mines in populated areas. In 1998, we launched our demining operations and advocacy work.

What are conditions like where you demined?

Extremely difficult. The zones were often isolated and difficult to access. I remember one particularly stressful operation under a high voltage powerline, which runs to the town of Beira in Zimbabwe. As well as the danger posed by the electrical cables, there was also the threat of the mines in semi-marshland and scrubland. It was one of our most complicated interventions.

How has this work changed lives for the people of Mozambique?

People can move about freely without the fear of mines. That is really important for a lot of people, in particular children who often walk to school. Land that was left fallow for years is once again being farmed. Abandoned areas have been re-populated. People are genuinely relieved! An official land handover ceremony held in November 2014, in Inhambane, marked the end of demining operations in that province. The population thanked us very warmly for our work. It was very emotional. You could see the joy and appreciation on the faces of the local people, finally free from the threat of mines, more than 40 years after Mozambique declared its independence.

Is this the end of Handicap International’s work against mines in Mozambique?

Far from it! We are still carrying out two types of actions. On the one hand, we are training police officers to recognize and secure explosive remnants of war. Although the country is officially mine free, there are most certainly a number of zones that are still polluted. On the other hand, in the province of Sofala, we are providing support for the victims of mines and people with disabilities to further their social and professional inclusion: we inform them about their rights, and refer them to the appropriate services. For some beneficiaries this program also offers professional training and financial assistance to set up their own business. In the last year and a half, we have referred almost 1,300 people. You cannot imagine how marginalized these people are.

So victim assistance is still patchy?

Yes, but that is set to change. Handicap International played a vital role in advising the Ministry of Social Affairs on the drafting of a new, national victim support action plan that the Cabinet just adopted. We have made sure that the emphasis is placed on the realities of the situation in Mozambique: the need to provide adapted assistance to victims still suffering from psychological trauma, to compensate for their exclusion from the job market, etc. We are very proud of the result.

How are the living conditions for mine victims and people with disabilities?

Truly unenviable. Orthopedic fitting services are not up to standard: the quality and availability of mobility aids is increasingly poor, waiting times for aids are getting longer and longer, and there are far too few centers offering care management.

Another huge problem is that we still do not know how many mine victims there actually are in Mozambique! National estimations vary widely, as identifying and recording these victims is no mean feat. Determining an adequate response is even more complicated, especially in the remote rural areas where we work.

Finally, we have also seen a decrease in funding for actions against mines in Mozambique. Even though the demining work is over, there is still much to do, notably in terms of victim assistance. Mozambique may be “mine free” but that doesn’t mean it’s victim free.