On a low bluff overlooking the point in south-eastern Angola where the Rio Cuito meets the Rio Cuanavale, lanes of soft sand wind their way through the bush. A fully laden and armoured Land Rover is almost too heavy for the terrain. After passing a rusting South African tank, one of the tracks leads to two villages, Aldeia Sambimbi and Aldeia Mbimbi.
Home to several families living in homes made of mud and wood, the two villages’ farmland is bisected by a minefield. This is HALO Angola’s task H320. It is a minefield laid by Cuban troops and the Angolan military in 1987. It was laid to protect the southern approaches to the river during one of the phases of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale – billed by some as the biggest tank battle in Africa since World War II.
The targets of the landmines – Angola’s UNITA rebels and their South African allies - are long gone. The civil war ended in 2002. But the threat of death and dismemberment hangs over farmers like Olombo Chanaga, who lives in Aldeia Sambimbi. “HALO coming to clear this land means there will at last be peace in my village,” he says.
Leading the clearance work is Maria Ilda, Minefield Supervisor of the two HALO teams who have been clearing the minefield since August 2016. In their first month they had cleared 13,000 square metres and isolated 15 Soviet-made TM-62 anti-tank mines. Each holds 7.5kg of TNT and can blast through the floor of a tank. They are supposed to detonate only under the weight of heavy machinery, but in September 2016 a farmer struck one with a hoe in Huambo province and was killed instantly.
Maria, who is 32 and has two daughters, has been a deminer since 2007.
"My family lives several hours away, so for the first two years I didn’t tell them I was working as a deminer. I knew if I told them I was working in minefields they would encourage me to leave this job."
When she started there was just one other woman deminer in her part of Angola.
“I wanted to work for HALO because I wanted to contribute to clearing my country of landmines. I also applied because there are not many opportunities for work in this country. My daughters know what I do. They live three hours away and I only see them at pausa [the monthly break week]. They worry more about me being away than about the danger of the job. I am very proud to be a supervisor. The men don’t have any problem with me as their commander, they respect me a lot. In 2011 we had two teams entirely of women, but funding cuts meant those teams were disbanded. It would be nice to see more women teams again – the mines are still here to be cleared.”
Indeed, there are. HALO has removed 32,000 mines from Cuito Cuanavale, known to be the most mined town in Africa. But much remains to be done and recent funding cuts means it might take decades more to clear rural communities like those overseen by Maria and her team.
Without continued support from donors HALO will be obliged to cease demining operations in June 2017. Minefields in the provinces of Kuando Kabango, Benguela, Bie and Huambo will be suspended and clearance of dense mine lines postponed indefinitely. With a new initiative to employ 100 Women in Demining in Angola, HALO, is requesting funds to re-energise mine clearance operations with the aim to completely clear Angola of landmines by 2025.