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Southern Africa Report Archive

Cockburn writes with characteristic eloquence and at first hand (after a recent trip to Mozambique) about one of southern Africa's most haunting problems, the ubiquitous presence of land-mines in the rural areas. As Cockburn testifies, these are bombs - not time bombs so much as timeless} bombs - that have been strewn recklessly across the path of development in countries like Angola and Mozambique, a deadly legacy of the region's long agony of war. And they are primed, quite literally, to go off: again ... and again.

vol 11 no 1

Timeless bombs: The mines of Mozambique
Bruce Cockburn

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 1, November 1995
Page 14



There's a wealth of amputation waiting in the ground
But no one can remember where they put them down

Bruce Cockburn, "The Mines of Mozambique"

Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn and Mozambican singer Chude Mondlane recently toured Canada under the sponsorship of a broad coalition of Canadian NGOs (led by COCAMO and Mozambique's Instituto Eduardo Mondlane). The object: to speak about the invisible threat to the dynamics of peace process in Mozambique that landmines - a particularly grisly legacy of three decades of war in that country - represent.

Cockburn previously toured Mozambique in 1988, at the height of South African-backed war of destabilization there. Chude Mondlane's father, Eduardo Mondlane, was the first leader of the Mozambican liberation movement, FRELIMO, and was assassinated by the Portuguese colonialists in 1969. Together, Cockburn and Mondlane spent two weeks learning about the devastating human impact of landmines. They visited hospitals, landmine removal sites, rural communities affected by landmines and groups working with survivors.

whose weapons were these,
who buried my future

Chude Mondlane, "A Song for Mozambique"

In their meetings both spoke (and sang) eloquently of the horrors they had witnessed. Thus Mondlane brought the tragedy home by recounting the story of a little girl, much the same age as her own daughter, who was blown up by a landmine in an area not idenitified as a mine field. All that remained of the child was her red dress. Not just the death but the fact that there was no opportunity to bury the dead had clearly shaken Mondlane. Will Mozambicans be able to "return to the Blues and Greens and the Joy that was ours as Mozambicans?," she asked

Cockburn also spoke movingly of his experience in Mozambique, even singing a song that he had just composed in response to what he had observed there. We are grateful to Bruce for his permission to publish both and edited version of the text of the speech he gave, as well as the lyrics of the song he has written. For Mozambicans, Cockburn emphasized, demining is possible, albeit extremely difficult and formidably expensive. But his basic message was simpler: the only long-term solution to the landmines problem is a total ban on their use. He shared with his audience the blunt message of a Mozambican activist for the disabled who had himself been victim of a land-mine accident: "Stop blowing us up!"

Ban landmines. This is the goal of a coalition of Canadian NGOs, grouped together as Mines Action Canada (170 Bond St., Ottawa, ON K1R 7W1); this group calls on the Canadian government to push internationally for such a ban and to stop producing the Canadian land-mine, the "Elsie." Advocacy of a world-wide ban is also the principle message of a recent report from Human Rights Watch that Alex Vines - who himself works in the UK with that organization - brings to the attention of SAR readers in a second article published here. Vines' article has the added virtue of locating the problem of landmines within its wider southern African regional context (not least by referring to Angola where the landmine problem is even graver than in Mozambique). He thus provides a valuable pendant to Bruce Cockburn's account.




The road from Quelimane to Nampula winds prettily between lines of mango and cashew trees planted by the old colonial masters to draw people to where their activities could be monitored. It takes a long time to do the drive. The road rolls and heaves like a rough sea. A lot of rainy seasons have come and gone without anyone working on its repair. During the long years of war much of the countryside was emptied of people. Those who remained in RENAMO- controlled zones were put to work, not maintaining the road, but cutting shallow trenches in rows across the paved portions in order to slow vehicular traffic to where it would be vulnerable to ambush. Even though, since the peace accord was signed in October 92, scrap metal dealers have been busy, you can still see the twisted remains of convoyed trucks here and there along the roadside.

The War

While scavengers sort out the physical detritus of war, Mozambicans in general are trying to sort out its psychic debris. What was the true course of the war? There was virtually no communication between people caught on opposing sides - and it's only now that one can grasp the real shape of recent history.

When I was in Mozambique in 1988, there was no evidence that RENAMO had a political platform or anything like legitimacy. They were simply "the Bandits." And they had acquired a reputation for atrociously brutal tactics with respect to forced recruitment and the treatment of prisoners. So it came as quite a surprise to me, and I think to others, when they emerged from the elections with something like 40% of the vote. There was plenty of evidence in 1988 to support the former characterization of RENAMO, evidence which still abounds. I talked with the nurse in charge of a rural health post at Luala, in Zambezia province, who was blind in one eye because RENAMO soldiers had driven a pin into it.

Nevertheless, that picture didn't tell the whole story. In its attempt to replace colonial structures with a Marxist social order, FRELIMO had gone out of its way to humiliate and render powerless the traditional village leaders who had previously been supported by the Portuguese as a means of controlling the population. This, among other things, alienated large numbers of people. RENAMO turned this alienation to its own advantage by presenting itself as the friend of the traditional leaders. It seems, too, that peasant communities, when threatened by the war itself, had to choose between fleeing toward RENAMO or toward FRELIMO bases, and their choice then led to a similar choice at election time. There was an understandable feeling of exhaustion with war and the sense that if RENAMO didn't do well, the fighting would continue. Angola is currently providing an example of that scenario.

What next?

So where are we now? After 500 years of colonialism and 25 years of war, we have democracy in a country which for the most part does not value or even recognize any community larger than the village. Even at that level you don't see the acknowledgement of interdependence among people that you find in some other places. To what extent this is a mentality spawned by the war is not clear, but there's no doubt that the "Sauve qui peut" concept is what prevails.

We have a government with virtually no funds - which has, in the years leading up to the peace and those since, been compelled to restructure the country's economy at the behest of the World Bank and friends, opening the way for unfettered capitalism. We can now witness the spectacle of drastically underpaid teachers finding it necessary to charge students for the release of their marks; of thousands of demobilized soldiers without work or other support falling back on banditry to survive, who sometimes rent their weaponry from underpaid police who themselves frequently resort to mugging passers-by to augment their wages. (About this I can speak with great authority, having been held up by two cops outside my hotel in Maputo).

All this in contrast to a feeding frenzy on the part of international business and its local agents. There are oil companies, mining companies, logging companies, Japanese trawlers, entrepreneurs of all sorts, many of them Portuguese and South African. The irony is inescapable. Even the HIV virus, kept at bay by Mozambique's relative isolation during the war, is appearing as a colonizer.

Economic restructuring, to be fair, created an incentive to produce, and this has led to an improved situation for some people. It has also, though, provided massive incentives for corruption. There are consumer goods in the country, but the minimum wage is about $17 per month - not enough to buy a 50 lb. bag of flour. The cost of importing such goods is whatever you can negotiate with the nearest crooked customs official. Social spending is gone - sound familiar? Yes, but the effects in a place like Mozambique are beyond our worst nightmares. The central hospital in Nampula City used to be decent, if poorly supplied. Now it's a cesspool of misery. The mentally ill wander the hallways stinking of urine and raving. The walls are filthy. People who can, bring their own brightly patterned cloth rather than put themselves in contact with the hospital bedding. The gurney used to transport patients who can't walk is an old blood-stained stretcher rigged with wheels. Fecal-smelling wards are crammed with people, most of whom seem to be in for treatment of infections acquired while undergoing operations at this very institution. If you need an IV, you have to pay. If you need blood, you have to buy it. If you need medicine, your family has to comb the pharmacies in town because all the drugs have been sold off long since by the hospital staff. The closest thing to a bright spot in the whole scene is a cop who's there because he shot himself in the foot while chasing a "suspect." He complains because his superiors haven't come to visit.

The government can't raise salaries for fear of losing the support of the World Bank. So you have people producing in a modest way, but no money to buy anything and no means of carrying produce to market.

A country destroyed

The field against which this is happening is one of near total destruction of transportation, schools and stores in the wake of war, drought, and, in the north, a disastrous hurricane last year.

The war killed all the cattle, drove away or killed the wildlife, destroyed nearly all the trucks, wrecked rail lines, left all but the major cities in ruins - left rural access roads and fields polluted with landmines. With respect to this latter, Mozambique is typical of many Third World countries which have been the scene of wars, especially civil wars, in recent years. Over the past two decades the presence of anti-personnel mines in such places has come to constitute a major epidemic. The UN estimates that there are around two million mines in Mozambique. Although people involved in the process of removing them feel that number is a little high, there are plenty to go around. There are plenty of dead and maimed Mozambicans - 10,000 dead from mines during the war, and at least 500 in the last two years. These numbers don't include the injured, or the deaths occurring in remote areas that largely go unreported. The injured are generally disabled, who become a burden to their families; to what health care resources do exist; who are likely to further swell the numbers of urban beggars, contributing to the instability of society; and who can look forward to a very poor quality of life. Victims of mine accidents are most likely to be civilians, rural people who depend on a degree of physical fitness for their survival.

The one-armed, badly scarred and blinded kid whose sister leads him around to beg from the foreigners at the riverfront cafe in Quelimane is representative: he hit a mine with his mattock while working his family's machamba, or garden plot - well after hostilities had ended. When you talk to the technician in charge of the prosthetics workshop supported by the French NGO Handicap International, he tells you that probably 60% of his customers are mine victims. The workshop is part of an orthopaedic clinic where patients come for consultation and fitting of artificial limbs, as well as physiotherapy aimed at helping them adjust to their prostheses. In one room they are navigating between parallel bars, getting used to walking without their Canadianas. Their what? Canadianas. These are the short metal crutches that are braced against the forearm. Nobody knows why they're called that, but we get a laugh from the bystanders when we explain that where we come from, women are Canadianas.


Landmines come in many shapes and sizes, but they can be loosely divided into "anti-tank" and "anti-personnel." Anti-personnel mines can be further differentiated as "blast" and "fragmentation." Blast mines, as the name implies, work by simply blowing off parts of the body. Fragmentation mines work like a big grenade, sending shrapnel over a wide radius. There are various methods of triggering explosions, the most common being foot pressure, or a trip wire.

Anti-tank mines are designed to blow the track off of 60-ton armoured vehicles and generally require a substantial weight to set them off. The front wheel of a jeep will do it - or a road construction vehicle - and there won't be much left afterward. Fortunately, anti-tank mines are present only in small numbers in Mozambique. The real obstacle to development is the anti-personnel mines, and the perception of them. It's worth pointing out here that unlike other weapons, mines are activated by the victim. Nobody is aiming them. Classically, mines are used by soldiers to deny access to an area - e.g. to create a defensive perimeter around a base or town, or to prevent ambushes by laying them along the shoulders of a road. This application is one seen commonly in Mozambique.

During the war of independence, the Portuguese laid mines in this way. In the late 70's, the Rhodesian forces mined the border areas of Mozambique to deter guerilla incursions. FRELIMO laid strings of mines around towns, hydro lines, military bases and key industrial sites. Private companies mined their own operations as well. The Canada Dry mineral water bottling plant at Namaacha near the border with Swaziland, is surrounded by four different rings of Anti-personnel mines. For all that, RENAMO still was able to capture and destroy the plant.

Classically, too, records are kept of the location and number of mines, and the minefields are marked with signs and/or strands of wire. In practice, very little documentation survives. Wire and sign posts are removed by people in need of building materials and years later nobody remembers where the mines are.

When you're the guerrillas, you don't have large installations to defend, so your use of mines is different. And you don't keep records at all. RENAMO proved itself very effective at using its South African-supplied ones as a terror weapon. Put a couple on the trail where you might expect the enemy to walk, but maybe lay some near the local health post or in the schoolyard, or maybe don't lay any, but say you did. RENAMO used a lot of forced labour. In one case, a primary school teacher was put to work for several days carrying boxes of mines from one of their camps to an area where they were to be laid. He told his acquaintances what he was doing, and the word spread that the area was now unsafe. After the war, it turned out that he was only carrying crates of rocks - that it was all a trick. It served the purpose though - area denial - and I wonder if anyone's farming that land even now? When you've seen what these things do, you're not inclined to take chances.

Problem is, when you're a subsistence farmer, you have to farm or starve. So what do you do? You learn to live with the threat. You start to mythologize it. If your child decides to play with a fragmentation mine and is suddenly reduced to a few bloody scraps of clothing, it's because somebody's offended the ancestors. It's not because someone in Russia or Italy or China or the US manufactured a lethal device and sold it for five bucks so your low budget armies could put it in your field. It isn't obvious to you that the manufacturers' government will give its taxpayers money to the UN, so that the UN can hire that same manufacturers' expertise to remove the thing for a thousand dollars.

A total ban?

A lot of effort is going into mine awareness training in Mozambique. It was hard for me to judge whether or not it's working. A good deal of effort and expense is going into de-mining operations, not all of them of the kind just referred to. The UN has a major program in place in the south of the country, training former soldiers from both sides in the location and destruction of mines.

A couple of NGO's are also working in other regions. Halo Trust, a British group and the first NGO to have de-mining as its express purpose, is at work in Zambezia province, one of the worst infested areas. Norwegian People's Aid has a similar program in Tete province using trained dogs to sniff out mines where the soil is too high in iron for metal detectors to be effective.

There is a reasonable hope that the problem of mines in Mozambique can be solved - because of the relatively small numbers and because in many cases they can be worked around. Even though the things can remain deadly for as much as 50 years, given the money and the will to keep on clearing, and to build alternative roads to those that are most heavily mined, we can eventually expect to ease the situation to the point where life can be something like normal.

This may be true of Mozambique, where the war is over and no new mines are being laid. It's not so true elsewhere. A year ago Mozambique was averaging two mine accidents weekly. At the same time, Angola was suffering 25 per day. In Cambodia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and a host of other places, there is no short-term solution.

There is, however, a long-term one. Only one. Anti-personnel mines must be placed in the same special category under international law as chemical weapons. They have to be banned.

Mozambique is facing a frightening array of difficulties. Who will rein in the police? Where will transportation come from? Can it remain sovereign in the face of so much international economic involvement? How do you move a nation from a nearly pre-industrial state into the age of the microchip without being buried by the avalanche of change?

In some respects, this is a country that is still at the tourniquet stage of recovery. It must be kept from bleeding to death long enough for it to get on its feet. It's hard to know where to start to address the situation. One point might be this: I asked an activist for the disabled, himself crippled by a mine, what message he would like carried to the outside world. His response - tell them to stop blowing us up!



There's a broad river winding through this African lowland
the moon is held up orange and big - see it raise its hands
the last ferry's pulling out with nowhere left to stand
for the mines of Mozambique

There's a wealth of amputation waiting in the ground
but no one can remember where they put it down
if you're the child who finds it there you will rise upon the sound
of the mines of Mozambique

Some men rob the passersby for a little cash to spend
some men rob whole countries dry and still get called their friend
and under the feeding frenzy there's a wound that will not mend
in the mines of Mozambique

* * *

Night, like peace, is a state of suspension

Tomorrow the heat will rise
mist will hide the marshy fields
the mango and the cashew trees
which only now they're clearing brush from under

Rusted husks of blown-up trucks
line the roadway north of town
like passing through a sculpture gallery
war is the artist - but he's sleeping now -

and somebody will be peddling vials of penicillin
stolen out of all the medical kits sent to the countryside

and in a bare workshop
they'll be moulding plastic into little prosthetic legs
for the children of this artist
and for those who farm the soil
that received his bitter seed

* * *

the all-night stragglers stagger home - cocks begin to crow
and singing birds are starting up - telling what they know
and after a while the sun will come and we'll see what it will show
of the mines of Mozambique

copywrite 1995 Golden Mountain Music Inc

- 30 -

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