THE late Simon Chimbetu’s hit song Pane Umwe Asipo belts out from a cassette player hanging from the edge of the hut where 30-year-old amputee Philemon Sibanda often sits in abject despair, silently praying for a prosthetic leg so he can walk again.
By Elias Mambo
“They have not even cleared the area of landmines,” Sibanda says. “I have no life to look forward to. I spend most of my time just seated. If I had not been injured I would be tilling the land as others are doing.”
“Living in a minefield area is no different from in a war zone as you are always in fear of being hurt or killed any day,” said Sibanda, who lost a leg after stepping on a landmine in 1998 while herding cattle in his village, Gwaivhi, near the Sango Border Post between Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Sibanda cannot walk, as the prosthetic limb donated by a charity organisation now causes pain when he uses it as it is now worn out. He desperately needs a new artificial limb, but cannot afford it, yet he needs to be up and about so that he can fend for himself.
Thirty-three years after the end of Zimbabwe’s liberation war against the Rhodesian colonial regime, landmines continue to exact a heavy toll, killing and maiming people and livestock and rendering large swathes of valuable land unusable at a time pressure is mounting on available land due to population growth.
A decade-long socio-economic crisis which the country is still battling to recover from has left the country with little to spare for crucial demining efforts.
Thousands of villagers in and around Gwaivhi live in perpetual fear of the devastating effects of landmines which have killed 1 550 people and maimed more than 2 000 since 1980.
According to Halo Trust, a British-based demining organisation dedicated to removing the debris of war and landmines, Zimbabwe, with approximately 5 500 unexploded landmines per kilometre, is one of the most mine-impacted countries in the world in terms of the area affected and density of mines. It compares to countries in immediate post-conflict transition periods such as Angola and Afghanistan.
At Independence, Zimbabwe had six minefields covering an estimated 2 700km of its borders with Zambia and Mozambique. The biggest was the Musengezi-Rwenya minefield in Mashonaland Central province, 335km long, followed by the Victoria Falls-Mlibizi field at 220km.
The Crook’s Corner-Sango minefield was 53km, while there was also the 50km Sheba Forest-Beacon Hill field, and Rusitu-Muzite Mission (75km) in Manicaland.
Zimbabwe is struggling to clear seven vast minefields, mostly in the western and north-eastern border areas with Zambia and Mozambique, where millions of the anti-personnel explosives were planted during the country’s liberation war from 1966 to 1979.
According to Halo Trust, during the liberation war the Rhodesian forces laid extensive minefields along the borders between Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique in an attempt to prevent liberation war fighters from moving in and out of the country for training, fighting and supplies.
University of Zimbabwe Professor Charles Nhachi (College of Health Sciences) said a severe lack of resources has hindered the demining programme.
“Government has tried to demine some areas, but lack of funding affects the process. There is also need for training of those military people involved in the exercise because not every soldier is skilled in demining,” Nhachi said.
Colonel Mkhululi Ncube, who leads the demining exercise, said the removal of mines will take another 30 years if the international community does not chip in.
“The government has been funding the mine-clearing operation since 1982. We need assistance. There is no country which is a state party to the Ottawa Treaty which does not get assistance from the international community,” said Ncube.
“The Rhodesian army laid minefields along the northern and eastern borders to prevent infiltration of freedom fighters from Mozambique and Zambia. Three million anti-personnel mines were laid in six distinct minefields with a total area of 850 square km and some of them are now above surface,” said Ncube.
Ncube also said it would take an estimated US$100 million to clear the mines.
The Ottawa Treaty, officially known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, aims at eliminating anti-personnel landmines around the world. To date there are 161 states which are party to the treaty.
Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) partnered the government of Zimbabwe on a landmine removal campaign in Gwaivhi village on the border with Mozambique as the country has been struggling to demine since the withdrawal of the European Union, Germany and the US governments.
ICRC head of delegation Olivier Dubois said landmines continued to kill people worldwide, hence there is an urgent need for governments to expedite their removal.
“There is need to come up with ways to demine. In most cases, landmines are mapped and it becomes easy to locate them, but the situation in Zimbabwe is now tricky and will take many years to be addressed because the markings have been removed,” Dubois said.
“As ICRC we have managed to train 54 officers to demine the Sango border area as well as donated 50 full-gear and trauma kits for medical evacuations. We call upon all organisations to come forward and help so as to prevent loss of lives and livestock,” he said.
However, indications are that the landmines will continue exacting their little-publicised toll as there are no signs Zimbabwe will acquire the funding or assistance to clear the landmines anytime soon.