Some years ago My wife and I got work at an international school in Luanda (Angola). A country that made a huge impression on us.
When we arrived in Angola, the civil war that had been raging in that country for about 30 years had just ended with the shooting to death of Savimbi – the leader of one of the three waring factions, (UNITA) and a sort of uneasy peace was being observed by all the various parties to that terrible war.
|The end of Savimbi, and thus of the war|
It had started as a war of independence against the Portuguese who had colonised the country in the late 19th century, and then once they had gone, it turned into yet another of those wars in which the USSR and the USA fought each other using surrogate armies. In this case it was the Cubans being the strong arm of the Russians, and the South Africans doing the USA’s dirty work for them.
The net result of all of this was a country that had an estimated 17 million land mines scattered around and endless shot up towns and villages, and a more or less totally destroyed infrastructure. Vast numbers of war injured people and an internal refugee problem of gigantic proportions – A real mess in other words.
In our work contracts with the International School of Luanda we were obliged to go away from the school compound during all our holidays, so most of our colleagues went off to South Africa, Namibia or further afield during the school holidays. Lotty and I on the other hand used those breaks mainly to explore Angola a bit, as Luanda itself is, or was, a horrible, slum ridden smelly dirty place. Relatively untouched by the war in the sense of not having any shot up buildings or other physical signs of the war, simply the millions of refugees living in unbelievable squalor around the city in vast slums.
We went off to towns such as Huambo, Lobango and Benguela which showed us a very different side of Angola. Huambo was a rather pleasant small city up country, which hadn’t been particularly damaged by the war, even though it was the city that Savimbi used as his main base, so there were some sections that had been seriously bombed and damaged. Most notably the house where Savimbi had lived, this was a total ruin, with what was all too typical of Angola back then, several dead tanks in the garden. Angola was notable for an almost total lack of garden gnomes, but lots of burnt out tanks in people’s gardens instead.
|Impressive what you can do with a heavy machine gun|
|Bigger and better than any garden gnome, a T60 tank in the back yard|
|Savimbi’s bombed house|
This was also the base from which the good folk of the Halo Trust set out to clear up all of those land mines the country was so plagued with. This work was being carried out by (among others) two young friends of ours from the UK, Nathaniel and Ali. So on one of our several visits to Huambo, they organised a visit to a mine field for us. This was in a small village nearby, where a largish mine field had been planted around a military base, just on the edge of the playground of the village school.
|What landmines actually look like…. Small and inoffensive mostly… But……………………..|
We arrived there and were taken under the arm of the Angolan guy who was in charge of this particular bit of mine clearing. He explained to us exactly the whats and hows of this particular mine field,and then kitted us out with the same sort of body armour that Princess Diana had so famously worn during her visit to these mine fields in Angola.
|Us walking in the middle of the minefield|
|Me pretending to be Princess Diana – But in drag obviously|
|Another view of the minefield, the green bit is it.|
Not surprisingly this armour is extremely heavy, hot and uncomfortable….. But thinking of the alternative made us extremely happy to be so protected. We also had the labourious process of mine clearing explained to us in fine detail. It is a very slow and painstaking process, and can only be done effectively by means of men digging narrow trenches through the mine field with small hand trowels, and thus locating each individual landmine, and removing it carefully and exploding it later in a pit.
We had earlier been shown some landmines, and the thing that stood out for me was how small they tended to be. Logical enough as the idea is not to kill but to maim. A dead soldier is sad, but not a problem, a severely wounded soldier on the other hand is lousy for moral, and requires other soldiers to help him to an aid station…
|The only really effective way to clear mines, and this in a temperature in the high 30’s as well|