The Most Mined Town in Africa: U.S. Assistance Helps Clear Landmines in Angola

For many years, the Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale was notorious for landmines, a tragic reminder of the country’s 40 years of conflict. But now, thanks in part to U.S. assistance, “Africa’s most mined town,” is making progress in addressing that deadly legacy of its history. Earlier this year, I visited to witness first-hand the life-changing demining work supported by the U.S. Department of State. 

In anticipation of my visit to Cuito Cuanavale with the HALO Trust, one of the non-governmental organizations we support to perform humanitarian demining, I knew I needed to do some homework. First, where is Cuito Cuanavale? I found out it’s located in Cuando Cubango, a province in southeastern Angola near the Namibian border. I also read about the town’s history, learning how landmines were used indiscriminately in both Angola’s struggle for independence from Portugal, which was achieved in 1975, and its subsequent civil war. 

In the 1980s, Angola’s UNITA rebels, backed by South African troops, were locked in a fierce battle with Angolan government forces for control of the small but strategic crossroads town. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, widely viewed as a “Cold War proxy” battle, lasted for about six months during 1987 and 1988. At the time, it was the biggest tank battle in Africa since World War II. Landmines were emplaced in villages, farms, water sources, and other unexpected places to intimidate and kill civilians. But even after the fighters left, the landmines remained. According to HALO, Cuando Cubango is the Angolan province most contaminated by landmines, bearing the highest concentration of anti-tank mines in all of sub-Saharan Africa.

A South African tank that was disabled by landmines. [State Department photo]  

Although the HALO Trust has cleared more than 30,000 mines as of June 2016, it’s estimated that at least the same amount remain. Meanwhile, the need for arable land is so great that thousands of returning refugees and internally-displaced persons are settling in hazardous areas, sometimes directly on minefields. Today, approximately 41,000 people live in and around Cuito Cuanavale, despite the enduring danger from landmines.

Signs mark rows of anti-tank mines, as HALO deminers work in the background. [State Department photo]

While touring the demining operations, we visited a village surrounded by minefields, where we were greeted by the village elder and his extended family. It was moving to hear how they struggle to survive while landmines contaminate their ancestral homeland. Their subsistence farming remains dangerous until the land surrounding their village can be fully cleared. 

A village elder stands in the Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale. [State Department photo]

In the mid-1990s, landmines and unexploded ordnance were killing as many as 120 Angolans per month, according to reports from the United Nations and non-governmental organizations. Estimates for the total number of casualties to date range as high as 88,000.

The United States has invested more than $117 million in Angola since 1995 to clear and dispose of landmines, unexploded ordnance, and aging Cold War-era weapons and munitions that threaten civilians. This assistance, primarily implemented through non-governmental organizations, allows more and more Angolans to return to their homes and live there safely. While the work has drastically reduced civilian casualties, declining international funding for demining threatens to stall Angola’s dramatic progress. To make matters worse, falling commodity prices have damaged Angola’s ability to make up the shortfall on its own. At current rates, Angola could remain mine contaminated until 2040 or beyond. 

We hope that donors join the United States in reinvigorating their support for Angola so that the deadline can be moved closer by a decade or more. Acting now would save countless lives and limbs. 

About the Author: Dennis F. Hadrick serves as a Program Manager in the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA) with the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.

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Visit to “village in a minefield” with the HALO Trust.
Posted by Dennis Hadrick
August 31, 2016

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