Angola, Land Mines and Dead Tanks.

Some years ago My wife and I got work at an international school in Luanda (Angola).  A country that made a huge impression on us.
When we arrived in Angola, the civil war that had been raging in that country for about 30 years had just ended with the shooting to death of Savimbi – the leader of one of the three waring factions, (UNITA) and a sort of uneasy peace was being observed by all the various parties to that terrible war.
The end of Savimbi, and thus of the war
It had started as a war of independence against the Portuguese who had colonised the country in the late 19th century, and then once they had gone, it turned into yet another of those wars in which the USSR and the USA fought each other using surrogate armies. In this case it was the Cubans being the strong arm of the Russians, and the South Africans doing the USA’s dirty work for them.
The net result of all of this was a country that had an estimated 17 million land mines scattered around and endless shot up towns and villages, and a more or less totally destroyed infrastructure. Vast numbers of war injured people and an internal refugee problem of gigantic proportions – A real mess in other words.
In our work contracts with the International School of Luanda we were obliged to go away from the school compound during all our holidays, so most of our colleagues went off to South Africa, Namibia or further afield during the school holidays. Lotty and I on the other hand used those breaks mainly to explore Angola a bit, as Luanda itself is, or was, a horrible, slum ridden smelly dirty place. Relatively untouched by the war in the sense of not having any shot up buildings or other physical signs of the war, simply the millions of refugees living in unbelievable squalor around the city in vast slums.
We went off to towns such as Huambo, Lobango and Benguela which showed us a very different side of Angola. Huambo was a rather pleasant small city up country, which hadn’t been particularly damaged by the war, even though it was the city that Savimbi used as his main base, so there were some sections that had been seriously bombed and damaged. Most notably the house where Savimbi had lived, this was a total ruin, with what was all too typical of Angola back then, several dead tanks in the garden. Angola was notable for an almost total lack of garden gnomes, but lots of burnt out tanks in people’s gardens instead.
Impressive what you can do with a heavy machine gun
Bigger and better than any garden gnome, a T60 tank in the back yard
Savimbi’s bombed house
This was also the base from which the good folk of the Halo Trust set out to clear up all of those land mines the country was so plagued with. This work was being carried out by (among others) two young friends of ours from the UK, Nathaniel and Ali. So on one of our several visits to Huambo, they organised a visit to a mine field for us. This was in a small village nearby, where a largish mine field had been planted around a military base, just on the edge of the playground of the village school.
 What landmines actually look like….  Small and inoffensive mostly…  But……………………..
We arrived there and were taken under the arm of the Angolan guy who was in charge of this particular bit of mine clearing. He explained to us exactly the whats and hows of this particular mine field,and then kitted us out with the same sort of body armour that Princess Diana had so famously worn during her visit to these mine fields in Angola.
Us walking in the middle of the minefield
Me pretending to be Princess Diana – But in drag obviously
Another view of the minefield, the green bit is it.
Not surprisingly this armour is extremely heavy, hot and uncomfortable….. But thinking of the alternative made us extremely happy to be so protected. We also had the labourious process of mine clearing explained to us in fine detail. It is a very slow and painstaking process, and can only be done effectively by means of men digging narrow trenches through the mine field with small hand trowels, and thus locating each individual landmine, and removing it carefully and exploding it later in a pit.
We had earlier been shown some landmines, and the thing that stood out for me was how small they tended to be. Logical enough as the idea is not to kill but to maim. A dead soldier is sad, but not a problem, a severely wounded soldier on the other hand is lousy for moral, and requires other soldiers to help him to an aid station…
The only really effective way to clear mines, and this in a temperature in the high 30’s as well

Anyhow, all kitted out in our armour, we were taken to the minefield itself. And this was one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives. We found ourselves walking along a narrow path, demarcated with two lines of posts. There was nothing to be seen that would indicate any danger in the grassy areas on both sides of this path, but we knew it had landmines lurking under the grass, quietly waiting for some unfortunate person to step on them… As Nathaniel so memorably put it “Land mines are the beast that doesn’t bark”.

Somehow this relatively short walk through a mine field was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I simply couldn’t get my head around the fact that the innocent looking grass on both sides of the path concealed evil devices that would easily rip my legs off if I happened to tread on one… But it all looked so very normal and safe…..
All weapons of war are foul and abominations, but landmines have to be one of the most God awful things ever invented by mankind. They are small, cheap to make, easy to place, and then, once buried, can lurk there for years and years until some unfortunate soul treads on one, and then do their foul work. The net result for a country such as Angola is that huge tracts of the countryside are unusable, as no farmer in his right mind would work his fields if he knows that some idiot has planted mines all over it.
Also, given the charming habit of placing landmines around bridges and their approaches, it also means that many bridges are also unusable…
In fact all over Angola we were confronted by the problem of uncleared landmines. For example we were taken to the first oil field that had used by the Portuguese. This was a shale oil field, so the oil was sort of oozing out of the ground, and simply needed to be scraped up and processed. The whole thing was in a sort of basin, and when we got there, we were told very forcibly to only walk inside the basin, and not climb up its edges, as there were known to be landmines there, … And in other areas we were told never to walk off the actual roads as the edges had also been mined. This one was tricky as almost all the roads were in such a lousy state of repair it was impossible to see where the original road edges were.
We were told that the grass around us had mines in it… and only to walk on the bare rock….
And to really bring it home to us (as if that was needed) one saw the results of landmines all over the place. Endless one legged or no legged people were to be seen in every town we went to.
I can do no better than to quote from a superb article that Nathaniel wrote about his feelings as a mine clearer in Angola, which sums it all up horribly well.
When I visit minefields often my thoughts drift from the task of clearance to the what-ifs. What if I stood on one? I am big and strong and brush aside bruises and cuts; I injure myself all the time at work. A landmine surely would be minor, I would walk away rubbing dust from my eyes and cursing before going back to work….But that’s not what happens; you have no option. You can’t train to resist the blast from a mine. It doesn’t register your build, your upbringing, your insurance policy. It isn’t concerned about how many sit-ups you can do, or whether you were paying attention or not. It feels no sympathy for your family and shows no compassion. It is what it is.
It is not like a knife slicing a leg off; the shock wave liquefies your bone and rips through your flesh, leaving nothing solid holding it all together. The blast will tear chunks from your body leaving gaping wounds for infection and insect larvae to settle in. A child, with softer bones and major organs and head closer to the blast, probably would not live to watch the scar tissue develop, perhaps not even live long enough to scream for help. I have heard villagers try to describe a victim’s pleas; they do not have the words. And could you blame your family and friends for hesitating, if there’s one there could be more. The beast that doesn’t bark has just bitten; maybe the rest of the pack is on the hunt as well.”
That is the reality of landmines.
Later I shall write about the good things of Angola – of which there are many. It is a beautiful country, by and large the people were extremely helpful and friendly to us, and we saw and experienced so many wonderful things there that it is one of the places where we lived that holds a special place in my heart.

 

 

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