In Tshopo province in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a peaceful game of soccer can be potentially life-threatening despite the seemingly picturesque surroundings. “If we played ball and it landed far away from the playing field, we would simply leave it because we knew that we could get injured or die if we went to search for it,” students Kakongo Zoro and Itomali Osenge said, highlighting the problem of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) which can stay in the ground for years after fighting ends, awaiting an unlucky step.
Young football players pose near the town of Banakanuke. [Photo courtesy of DanChurchAid]
In the heart of central Africa, the DRC has spectacular rainforests, plateaus, volcanoes, and huge rivers like the Congo. Despite an abundance of natural resources, the country’s development has been thwarted by conflict following its independence from Belgium in 1960. From 1997-2003 in the DRC, nine African nations fought what became known as the African World War. As Tshopo and other eastern provinces became the front line between government, opposition, and foreign forces, urban warfare led to thousands of civilian deaths, massive displacement of families fleeing the fighting, and lingering dangers from landmines and unexploded bombs.
As relative peace emerged in Kisangani, the capital of Tshopo province, many people who had fled the conflict began returning. Unfortunately landmine and UXO contamination blocked their access to agricultural land, hunting and fishing areas, water collection points, and roads. Since 2002, the United States has invested more than $19 million in supporting the DRC to safely clear landmines and UXO, making a huge difference for the civilians whose lives were interrupted by war.
The State Department has invested $6 million over the last three years alone to help the DRC achieve its goal of freeing itself from the humanitarian impact of landmines by 2017. In addition, U.S. programs have enhanced regional security by helping the DRC reduce at-risk and aging Cold War-era stockpiles of arms and ammunition.
In 2016, DanChurchAid, a non-governmental organization working under a State Department grant, has cleared several minefields, two of them in the municipality of Banakanuke in Tshopo province. This means that football doesn’t have to be potentially lethal anymore. Kakongo Zoro explained, “Most of us were not even born when the various wars took place. We just heard about and saw accidents and deaths caused by landmines, so we have grown up with fear about where to go. We have not been able to play as other children do when they are not afraid of stepping on landmines.” Itomali Osenge continued, “Now that DanChurchAid has removed the dangerous items around our village, we can play and help our parents in the field without fear of getting injured. We also know what to do if we see strange things in the ground because those things could be mines or other explosive items that DanChurchAid has shown us.”
Kakongo Zoro and Itomali Osenge, flanked by DCA staff, attend a mine risk education session at school in Banakanuke. [Photo courtesy of DanChurchAid]
DanChurchAid also strives to make mine risk education programs available to as wide a cross-section of the community as possible, seeking to educate women in particular because of the risks they face as the primary cultivators of land. Youth are taught mine risk education in schools to ensure their full participation. Local school headmaster Camile Botuma Inoga noted, “The mine risk education sessions are well-constructed and adapted to the audience, making it easy for children and adults to understand and remember the key messages. It is knowledge that will help our children avoid accidents; we could have avoided tragedies in some of the families in our community if we had known about these issues earlier.” He added, “Now they know that if they are faced with a suspicious item they shall inform their teachers, and if they are at home they will inform their parents or other adults.”
Through our support of partner organizations like DanChurchAid, the United States remains the world’s single largest financial supporter of efforts to clear unexploded ordnance and landmines. Since 1993, the United States has contributed more than $2.6 billion to more than 95 countries around the world to reduce the harmful worldwide effects of at-risk, illicitly trafficked, and indiscriminately used conventional weapons of war.
To learn more about the United States’ global conventional weapons destruction efforts, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.