MALANGE, Angola – Ten years after the end of the civil war in Angola, the country still remains, despite its best efforts, one of the most unexploded mine-affected countries in the world. The African nation was due to finish the demining by 2013, but the Angolan government is requesting a five-year extension to complete the task.
Cautiously, meter after meter, a deminer checks if the ground is clear of mines and unexploded devices. He is working on a demining zone operated by the NGO Norwegian People's Aid five hours east of the capital city, Luanda. His team has been here for two months, just steps away from a village.
Most villagers have been living here for a long time. They left during the fighting, and came back when the war ended in 2002, only to find their land riddled with mines. Angie Labento, who has been living here for 20 years, already sees a difference since the demining operation started.
"We are very thankful; soon the kids will be able to run around. We were afraid before, so we are very thankful,” says Labento.
But the main life-changer is yet to come for the villagers. The team is working to reopen for them access to the water tank located in the middle of the minefield. Soon, they will finally have water running down the taps again, for the first time in decades.
A heavy price paid
According to the United Nations Development Program, more than 80,000 people in Angola have been maimed by landmines since war broke out in 1975, and thousands more were killed. One out of eight Angolans lives in a landmine-affected community, and the 30 years of war have riddled all provinces with mines.
And now, as people are relocating and claiming more land for agriculture, the pressure is high to catch up with the demining.
Norwegian People's Aid's team leader Francisco Nonda says the deminers also rely on villagers to tell them where the mines and other explosive devices are located.
"We have a team to sensibilize the people on the risks and on the danger of mines and other unexploded devices. They are very conscious of this. And when they find something on the field, they let us know, so we collaborate together on this."
The Norwegian NGO works with the national demining commission, CNIDAH, which coordinates the efforts of both NGOs and local demining teams. The commission monitors the operations all across the country.
Demining for development
CNIDAH's departmental head of operations, Brigadier Roque de Oliveira, says the government has put a great deal of effort into demining, because it is deemed crucial for the development of the country.
"For Angola to grow and develop, especially in agriculture, we need to demine. For Angola to build houses and schools that were destroyed during the war, we need to demine. And we need to demine railroads to improve development as well."
Besides agriculture, the country and the region also have the potential for tourism. Just a few kilometers away from the landmines are the third biggest waterfalls in Africa. Ten years ago, few people would venture here. Today, it has become a popular place for locals and expatriates to visit.
The Angolan government has recently asked for a five-year extension to finish demining, arguing that only 40 percent of the job has been completed in the past decade.