Twenty years ago today Princess Diana walked through a minefield in Angola. Yet despite the passing of twenty years, the country remains over a decade away from being landmine-free. Why? All nations have a stake in striving for a mine-free Angola – and indeed the world, argues JAMES COWAN, CEO of The HALO Trust.
It is one of the iconic images of Princess Diana, taken just months before her death in 1997. Wearing a protective head visor and anti-armour vest, the mother of a future British monarch walked through a minefield in the process of being cleared by humanitarian charity The HALO Trust. Angola was in the midst of a bitter civil war which would rage for a further five years.
Her decision to walk through the minefield had ramifications throughout Angola and the world. By posing for photographs with child amputees, she highlighted the grotesque indiscrimination of the weapons: its victims were not only militiamen but seven-year-old children such as Sandra Tigica. But by walking through the minefield, she also showed the world the solution – banning the production of landmines and ploughing money into mine clearance to remove them from the earth forever.
Diana’s visit was not solely responsible for the creation of the Mine Ban Treaty later in 1997, but she certainly helped create momentum behind it. Today the Mine Ban Treaty is now one of the world’s most widely accepted treaties: over 80% of the world’s countries are party to it. Global production of anti-personnel landmines has halted, vast stockpiles have been destroyed and in 2015 the only state that used mines was Syria.
Mine clearance has played a pivotal role in helping displaced communities returned to their homelands after the chaos of war. In Sri Lanka, 300,000 people were displaced during the civil war. Through clearing the land of mines and other explosive debris, HALO has helped 160,000 displaced people return and access paddy fields, fishing jetties and grazing land. Mine clearance will also play a fundamental role in tackling the current migrant crisis caused by wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Despite the ongoing conflict, HALO is training Syrians that will clear mines, unexploded ordnance and booby traps from contaminated land and eventually allow refugees and internally displaced people to return safely to their homes.
Since the Mine Ban Treaty was ratified, there has been an enormous effort to clear landmines. Thirty states have been declared mine free. A striking recent example is Mozambique, which was declared free of mines in 2015 after 22 years of work by HALO and other operators. But twenty years since Diana’s visit, Angola’s story does not have the same happy ending.
There are positive chapters. The minefield where Diana walked it now a thriving community with housing, a carpentry workshop, a small college and a school. Since 1994, HALO has destroyed more than 92,000 landmines and 162,000 items of unexploded ordnance and cleared more than 800 minefields. But Angola could be an entire decade away from becoming mine free. There are 630 minefields remaining in the eight provinces where HALO works and could be up to a thousand remaining across the country.
Meanwhile, while statistics for landmine victims in Angola vary considerably due to unreliable (and often inexistent) recordkeeping, children are still being killed mere kilometres from where Diana walked. Last September, eight people from the same family were killed near Kuito when a child brought an anti-tank mine into his home. Another child was killed and a further two suffered amputations after encountering an unexploded mortar in Huambo City.
After the image of the flak-jacketed Diana was beamed around the world, the Angolan tragedy was firmly placed on the international agenda. By the end of civil war in 2002, HALO saw government donations to its operations there increase significantly. The benefits of de-mining operations were immediately apparent. Clearing roads of anti-vehicle mines allowed refugees and the displaced to return to their communities and humanitarian aid to be delivered safely. Once decimated towns were gradually rebuilt. Clearance of minefields gave way to the rehabilitation and construction of hospitals, schools, homes and allowed civilians to farm the land and reach vital resources.
But the progress waned when funding for mine action in Angola fell by 68 per cent between 2010 and 2011. This forced HALO to reduce our local demining teams from 1,200 personnel to just 250 in the last few years. Today fleets of armoured vehicles and specialist equipment are inactive due to a lack of funds. This means that vast swathes of rural Angola are populated by people who still face the daily reality of living next to a minefield. The site of the infamous Cold War battle at Cuito Cuanavale on its southern border remains heavily mined and almost entirely forgotten – a graveyard of tanks, mortars and other deadly debris.
I don’t believe that this is what Princess Diana wanted for Angola two whole decades after she brought its plight to the world’s attention.
In 2014, States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty adopted the Maputo +15 Declaration. This committed them to intensify efforts to clear mines and to complete the task to the fullest extent possible by 2025.
The HALO Trust, along with the world’s other leading mine action charities is committed to putting an end to the suffering caused by landmines and cluster munitions forever. But the clock is ticking. Without a hefty injection of donor support, 2025 will come and go. Children in Angola and elsewhere will continue to be killed and maimed by mines and other explosive remnants of war. Displaced people will continue to be forced to undertake perilous journeys beyond their continent, rather than finding shelter on safe land closer to home. Let this weekend’s anniversary be a rallying cry for a safer future for them all.