Thirty-five years after the end of its war of independence, Zimbabwe remains one of the most severely landmine-impacted countries in the world, even as regional neighbors Mozambique and Angola are making progress toward reducing these hazardous legacies of past wars. The United States is a leading provider of humanitarian assistance to the people of Zimbabwe, and since 1997, has helped to clear landmines and unexploded ordnance, allowing thousands of people to live, travel, attend school, and farm their land safely.
A sign warning of landmines. Above, in the local dialect, is written “Enter, and you will die” [Dennis Hadrick, U.S. Department of State]
International experts note that today, Zimbabwe is now the most landmine-affected country in sub-Saharan Africa. These landmines, dating back to the 1970s, were laid by the former Rhodesian forces to prevent cross-border transit and resupply of fighters based in Mozambique and Zambia. In fact, according to the international NGO HALO Trust, due to the density with which the mines were laid, Zimbabwe currently has more mines in the ground than Afghanistan. As a result, in many communities along a 600 kilometer stretch of border with Mozambique, the slightest misstep can mean serious injury or death.
Landmines have a serious impact on the daily lives of many area residents. Landmines separate communities, limit travel and trade, and get in the way of access to water. So great is the country’s need for arable land that that many poor Zimbabwean villagers even risk farming on land seeded with explosives. Since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, over 1,500 people and 120,000 livestock have been killed in landmine accidents.
A Zimbabwean woman carries her infant past a minefield, safe passage marked by wooden stakes [U.S. Department of State]
Beginning in 1997, the United States began a humanitarian demining program to build the capacity of Zimbabwe’s own nascent efforts to confront these hidden hazards. Jointly operated by the Department of State and the Department of Defense, the program delivered training, equipment, and oversight for Zimbabwe Defense Forces personnel engaged in landmine clearance. By early 2001, with support from the United States and other partners in the international donor community, Zimbabwe had a competent, professional, and well-equipped national demining authority and program. However, despite some early successes, limited funding dramatically slowed the Zimbabwean military’s demining program for a number of years.
In 2012, the government of Zimbabwe asked the United States to restart humanitarian demining assistance, stating that, “Demining is a technical, not political, issue,” and referring to humanitarian demining as an area in which there should be “no constraints between us in helping the people.”
Based on the great humanitarian need, the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, working in partnership with U.S. Embassy Harare, launched a new $250,000 landmine clearance program. No U.S. funding is provided to the government of Zimbabwe; rather, we work primarily through our NGO partners the HALO Trust (operating along the northern Zimbabwe-Mozambique border) and Norwegian Peoples’ Aid (NPA), (operating along the country’s eastern border). Meanwhile, minefields in southeastern Zimbabwe are being cleared by Zimbabwean military personnel, under the supervision of the civilian-led National Mine Action Authority of Zimbabwe.
A U.S. funded demining technician from the HALO Trust tells villagers to stay to the right of stones painted red to indicate safe passage through a minefield [Dennis Hadrick, U.S. Department of State]
Our humanitarian demining program is a concrete demonstration of the U.S. commitment to helping the people of Zimbabwe, and it supports other U.S. development assistance programs through the return of contaminated land for community development. The removal of landmines in Zimbabwe will allow thousands of poor, rural farmers to safely access roads, water supplies, and agricultural land. This work directly contributes to the ongoing reduction in civilian casualties caused by landmines and explosive remnants of war and compliments ongoing U.S.-funded clearance operations next door in Mozambique.
An all-female team of demining technicians, one of several teams funded by the United States [Dennis Hadrick, U.S. Department of State]
To date, the United States has provided more than $7.1 million in support of the dangerous and difficult work of clearing landmines and unexploded ordnance in Zimbabwe. U.S.-funded programs have also prevented injury through community outreach and provided prosthetics and medical services to those injured by landmines. But much more work remains ahead: while the government of Zimbabwe has stated that its goal is to achieve mine impact-free status by 2020, estimates indicate that, with the government and two licensed NGOs (HALO Trust and NPA) working at their existing capacity, it will take 15-20 more years to clear Zimbabwe’s known minefields.
Sunset over a minefield in Zimbabwe [Dennis Hadrick, U.S. Department of State]
The United States is proud to be the world’s leading provider of financial and technical assistance to help countries in Africa and around the world address the serious humanitarian challenges posed by unexploded ordnance and unsecured conventional weapons. Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $2.4 billion in aid to over 90 countries for conventional weapons destruction. These programs address not only clearance of landmines and unexploded ordnance, but also destruction of stockpiles of excess or loosely-secured munitions to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands, and better stockpile management of munitions to prevent depot explosions that could endanger military personnel and civilians. Our efforts have helped to dramatically reduce the world’s annual landmine casualty rate, and assisted 15 countries to become free from the impact of landmines.
About the Authors: Dennis 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 and Rachel L. Meyers is the head of the Political/Economic section at U.S. Embassy Harare with the Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs.