Cause for Celebration: U.S. Support Helps Zimbabwe Clear Deadly Explosive Hazards and Opens Paths to Opportunity

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Residents of Burma Valley who live on the former minefield greet U.S. officials with singing and dancing during a recent visit.

Cause for Celebration: U.S. Support Helps Zimbabwe Clear Deadly Explosive Hazards and Opens Paths to Opportunity

Imagine living with your family beside a field of landmines that stretched for miles. During Zimbabwe’s Liberation War of the 1970s, the Rhodesian Army laid massive fields of landmines to prevent guerrilla fighters from entering the country. Forty years later, these hidden hazards continue to injure and kill local residents as they go about their daily lives: farming, gathering water, even walking to school. I recently returned from a visit to the Burma Valley in eastern Zimbabwe, a lush area near the city of Mutare where we saw firsthand how U.S. support helps one community live safely and make productive use of its land.

The United States supports international demining organizations to clear landmines in Zimbabwe along its border with Mozambique to protect civilians and enable socio-economic development. With U.S. support, Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) surveyed and cleared the minefield near Mutare in 2015, and we wanted to see how the local people were utilizing the land.

As we stepped out of our cars, the villagers greeted us by singing and dancing, and by waving their land permits in the air. Over the next hour, they flooded us with stories centered on one theme: freedom. The village chief's assistant declared, "We were staying here afraid of landmines. Now we are working freely and going to Mozambique for interactions, freely!" Another villager confided that she used to fear that her children would step on landmines, "but now, they can play freely." Yet another person added, "Now, we are freely herding our cattle to grazing areas." 

After NPA cleared the minefield, people built permanent homes out of bricks, in some cases replacing temporary homes of mud and straw.

This freedom is manifested in the community's physical transformation and vibrant entrepreneurship. Since 2015, residents of the community have built more than 25 permanent homes in the former minefield and its vicinity. Because more people started to settle in the valley and grow crops, a local woman was able to start a peanut butter and nut company that employs valley residents and uses nuts grown on the former minefield. She plans to sell her products throughout Mutare and procure a machine that will remove the shells from the nuts to expedite processing. The village chief told us that people have started growing maize, tobacco, tomato, and other crops. Moving forward, he hopes to establish a marketplace in the valley and install irrigation equipment running from a nearby dam. Thanks to the increases in income, some families are now able to send their children to school for the first time.

The owner of the Burma Valley Peanut Butter Company, second from left, shows off her products alongside her employees. On the far left is NPA's Mine Risk Education Officer.

While the residents of Burma Valley build on their newfound economic opportunities, demining operations continue in other communities. With U.S. and other donor support, NPA is surveying and clearing two minefields in the same province, stretching a total of 125 kilometers along the border. NPA's progress has accelerated thanks to the United States support for a Mine Detection Dog (MDD) team. The highly trained dogs can sniff out the explosive compounds in the landmines, helping the deminers pinpoint the exact parameters of the minefield and avoid tediously searching safe areas with a metal detector.

NPA demonstrates how a mine detection dog (MDD) detects landmines on a practice lane.

At the same time, the United States funds the HALO Trust to clear high-priority minefields in the Mount Darwin and Rushinga Districts of Mashonaland Central Province. With U.S. and other donor support, HALO has returned about 112 kilometers of the border to productive use, leaving 202 kilometers of contaminated border remaining in the province. In terms of area, this equates to HALO clearing 7 square kilometers (1,729 acres) with 10.8 square kilometers (2,668 acres) remaining. In 2017, the United States supported HALO to establish two mechanical teams in addition to the manual demining teams. The mechanical teams clear land at a faster rate than manual deminers and more safely address landmines that have tilted in the ground.

During our visit to HALO's operations, we drove by the Mafigu Health Post built on a former minefield that HALO cleared in 2017 with U.S. funding. The health post provides clean water and basic health services and education to the local populace.

HALO's CASE excavator clears a minefield near Machiti village. The excavator sifts soil through the screening bucket and places larger items, including landmines, into a controlled area for inspection.

Since 2013, the United States has provided $10.3 million to support demining efforts in Zimbabwe. This support has returned over 5 million square meters (1,247 acres) of land to productive use and destroyed 28,027 landmines to the direct benefit of 48,861 people. Additionally, U.S. funding has provided mine risk education to 7,812 people and provided prosthetic limbs to 89 survivors of landmine accidents. 

The Mafigu Health Post recently built on a former minefield near Chisecha, Zimbabwe.

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. You may also follow Norwegian People's Aid @NPAdisarm and The HALO Trust @TheHALOTrust.

About the author: Michael Tirre is the Assistant Program Manager for Africa Programs in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.