EDITORIAL COMMENT: End in sight for landmine fields

11 Aug, 2022 - 00:08 0 Views
EDITORIAL COMMENT: End in sight for landmine fields

The Herald

Landmines are an indiscriminate weapon destroying a vehicle or killing or injuring anyone who steps on them, regardless of whether than vehicle or person is a civilian or part of a military force, and which can function for many decades after the armies that laid them have all gone home and peace has prevailed.

And this is still the case in Zimbabwe, with 19,4 square kilometres of minefield still remaining although 291 square kilometres have been cleared over the past 42 years with the Zimbabwe National Army in the lead, but with valuable assistance from a small group of committed NGOs that have been putting their money in where it counts.

President Mnangagwa in his Defence Forces Day message praised that effort, and noted that soldiers had been injured and maimed in the clearance campaign and needed special support afterwards which the Government does provide.

But that campaign has lasted year after year for decades, and even now it is estimated that it will take another three years to clear the last mine.

Each mine, and more than 1 million were laid, has to be found individually, usually by probing, and then individually dug out, a long, very dangerous and very laborious process.

Of the two main types, anti-tank landmines that are fairly large and designed to disable a tank or other vehicle, and anti-personnel mines, designed to kill or injure a person, the anti-personnel mines are considered easily the major dangerous legacy long after the war is over.

The larger anti-tank mines are far easier to detect, rarely detonate if someone steps on one since they need the mass of a vehicle to trigger the explosion, and can be rapidly found and removed so long as the opposing forces are not in ambush for the army engineers doing the lifting.

So once peace arrives these go first.

Anti-personnel mines are far different being very small, a few centimetres across, very difficult to detect since for some time have had almost no metal parts, can be easily triggered and contain very little explosive that can be detected by a dog or complex technology.

The small charge and the detonator are normally in a plastic case, and one made of a long-lasting plastic.

In fact, the explosive charge is often so small that they do not kill instantly but instead smash the foot or lower leg of the person who steps on them, since the designers are keening on injuring and maiming rather than killing.

The person was still out of action for the duration of the war but the idea was that a lot of resources were needed to treat and evacuate the wounded, far more than just digging a war grave.

Depending on how the person steps on an anti-personnel mine, they will lose a foot if the mine detonates under the instep and the lower leg if the mine detonates under the heel.

Children, being smaller, are more likely to be killed very quickly.

This is one reason why anti-personnel mines were banned by the Ottawa Treaty in 1997, a treaty now signed by 164 countries although not yet by the US, Russia and China.

Anti-tank mines were not banned by this treaty, generally because they are more obviously a defensive military munition, and are easy when the shooting is over to be found and lifted with negligible danger to the team doing the lifting.

In Zimbabwe the Rhodesian forces, towards the end of the liberation war, decided to lay a huge mine field along the Mozambican and Zambian borders despite intelligence estimates that suggested the results would not justify the effort and investment required.

The effort was immense, more than 1 million anti-personnel mines being laid.

The objective was to make it impossible for Zanla and Zipra to deploy forces and bring up supplies, especially supplies of ammunition and other munitions.

The cordon was never completed, with large gaps remaining when it became almost impossible to fill these in thanks largely to the difficulty of deploying Rhodesian forces outside fortified posts in many border areas near the end of the war and thanks to the need to buy enough mines in the first place.

The intelligence assessment was also accurate. The minefields did not work well.

Besides the gaps, the liberation forces were able, thanks to some very brave men and women, to find safe paths through the minefields by noticing disturbed soil and the like, and smugglers have been using these since.

Zanla and Zipra also laid mines, but far fewer and all were the large anti-tank mines laid on roads to make it harder, slower and more dangerous for the Rhodesian forces to deploy manpower and to create ambush opportunities.

Since each one had to be carried on someone’s back numbers were always limited and the few remaining deployed at the end of the liberation war were generally lifted during the ceasefire before independence.

These mines were more valuable in the earlier years of the liberation war when the settler forces used soft-skinned vehicles and became less valuable as mine-proofed vehicles were deployed and major border roads were upgraded and tarred, often just in time for Independence.

But even to the very end of the war they delayed deployment of forces since each road still in use had to be checked before troops or supplies could be moved down it.

But now the end is in sight for Zimbabwe to be a mine-free country.

Around 93 percent of those 1 million mines have been lifted and destroyed, but that still leaves just under 7 percent, perhaps something close to 70 000, and that is a lot of mines, each one having to be found by hand and then lifted.

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