Angola, to this day, continues to fight the scourge landmines. The streets of Luanda are littered with several of these limbless victims of the hidden killers that are a stark reminder of an ‘endless’ civil war that ravaged what should be one of Africa’s richest countries..
They go about their lives with smiling faces that betray the deep-seated emotional turmoil that rules their existence. The most unfortunate have lost both legs while the more lucky ones still have the blessing of being able to put one foot on the ground. A drive through the city occasionally brings them to sight. It is either they are hobbling with the support of a pair of crutches, or they laboriously take lonely rides on manually-driven wheelchairs.
It is difficult to get them to recount the events that condemned them to a life of misery and helplessness – an ordeal that has seen some drown their painful memories in gallons of alcohol. Only Ozio Gabriel agrees to give a formal interview and allows about two or three pictures of him to be taken for publication. Others are particularly hostile and do not want to be ‘used’ by what they term an ‘unscrupulous’ newshound bent on profiting on their plight like many others have done before.
Amid an eventful and crowded Sao Paulo market place that seems to have everything under the sun, Gabriel scuffles around the dusty parking lot where he says he gets pittance for playing guard to shoppers’ parked vehicles. He has one functional leg and depends on crutches for balance. He too is a victim of the thousands of landmines littered around the country. It takes a gentle persuasion from Emmanuel Catumbela – an Angolan national based in Gaborone – to get Gabriel talking.
The people of Botswana, he says, should consider themselves lucky to have been born in a peaceful country that has not known the perils of a civil war. “Here we had to pay with our lives and limbs to attain the peace we have now, and the memories of that war are far from pleasant,” states Gabriel.
His ordeal happened 23 years ago when he was a government soldier in the infamous Angolan civil war that ended a few years ago. While on foot patrol with his mates in a place called Soyo in the Zaire province then, he hit on a mine that was eventually to have his right leg amputated to the thigh. Despite fighting on the side of the government that still rules the country to this day, Gabriel still remains a pauper who depends on Good Samaritans whose cars he guards at Luanda’s parking lots. Reasons for this are quite cloudy and inexplicable, worsened by the fact that Gabriel speaks in Portuguese whose translation by another Angolan is uncertain. However, it turns out that government uses extremely strict and complicated measures to determine people who can receive compensation for injuries resulting from landmines. Gabriel says it is the loss of his documents relating to the landmine incident that has complicated his right to a compensation claim. He is however still working on getting a copy of those documents and hopes he eventually gets help from the ministry responsible for providing aid to landmine victims.
On a very good day of business, the 42-year old from Malage province makes around 200 to 400 kwanzas (just under P30) and says his greatest wish is to finally receive money from government to support his sorry life. To date, people in Angola continue to be accidentally hit by landmines, but this happens in areas far away from Luanda where war was rife. These areas have no farming activities because of the uncertainty of what the land holds. Usually in a year, according to an official in the National Inter-Sectoral Commission for Demining and Humanitarian Assistance, over 700 landmines are deactivated in a continuing demining exercise, and about 600 were anti-personnel while over 100 were anti-tank ones. And this demining happened only in a single province of Kuando Kubango.
During the civil war, the landmines were used to protect the population by keeping the rebels from the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) at bay, and the latter also used them to prevent government soldiers entering their territories. Now the thousands of these death-traps have become a danger, killing several unsuspecting people in the process. Last year alone, about 80 landmine-induced deaths were reported in Angola, compared to just 28 in the previous year.
Catumbela added that the threat posed by these landmines has become even more pronounced as the country embarks on a reconstruction drive. There is a lot of digging and exploring in the country and in rural areas, wary people have resorted to sending in their animals first, resulting in loss of their livestock.
Emmanuel Catumbela pictured with local journalist Michael Kaote with one of the affected Angolans