What role has Handicap International played in demining in Mozambique?
Gregory Le Blanc (GL): Over the last five years from 2011 - 2015, we have been the lead actor in the demining sector in Mozambique, operating in the provinces of Sofala and Inhambane which were still contaminated with mines. We have cleared almost 10 million square meters of land, the equivalent of 140 football pitches, to benefit the country’s 3 million inhabitants. However, we have actually been working in the country for over thirty years, covering the full range of humanitarian demining actions. We first started by delivering rehabilitation care, then ran campaigns to raise the population’s awareness of the risks posed by mines in populated areas. In 1998 we launched our demining operations and advocacy work.
In what conditions did these demining operations take place?
GL: The conditions were extremely difficult. The zones to clear 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 themselves, there was also the threat of the mines in semi-marshland and scrubland. It was one of our most complicated interventions.
How has this demining work changed the lives of the people of Mozambique?
GL: People can move about freely without the fear of mines. That is really important for a lot of people, in particular children who often go to school on foot. 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 the 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, over forty years after Mozambique declared its independence.
Is this the end of Handicap International’s work against mines in Mozambique?
GL: Far from it! We are still carrying out two types of actions in this area. 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 existing services and refer them to the appropriate services according to their needs. 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?
GL: Yes, but that is set to change. The Cabinet is about to adopt a national victim support action plan. Handicap International has played a vital role in advising the Ministry of Social Affairs on the drafting of this policy. We have made sure 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 can be very proud of the result.
So things can only get better for mine victims?
GL: It’s not quite that simple. The living conditions for mine victims and people with disabilities are 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 we work in.
Finally, we have also seen a decrease in funding for actions against mines in Mozambique. However, even though the demining work is over, there is still much to do, notably in terms of victim assistance. Although Mozambique is officially “mine free” since 17 September, that does not mean there will be no more victims in the future.