By Valerie Michaud
Two years ago, a young man died because he was thirsty. On his way to a well near his home, he stepped on a landmine. Both his legs were blown away and he died lying in a dusty pool of blood.
“My Cousin stepped on a Soviet Union landmine, one of the most dangerous types of mine,” recalls Aston Kidima, 27, a Ryerson public administration student from Angola.” He was on his land just walking by and BOOM! He died.”
A protracted civil war between the communist-backed government army and the US backed anti-communist rebels ripped the country apart for more than two decades.
Aston, who moved to Canada eight years ago, says the situation hasn’t improved much since he was last in Angola. The fighting has stopped, but not the suffering.
The countryside is still heavily contaminated with millions of buried landmines, waiting for its preys in fields, playgrounds and roads.
Because of this, freedom of movement is a commodity Angolans do not have. This is one of the most debilitating effects of living with landmines. Aston explains that when travelling outside the capital city of Luanba, every step is like playing Russian roulette.
“According to the statistics there is one landmine per person out there. That’s a scary situation,” says Aston in a quivering voice.
With 17 to 20 million landmines hidden throughout the country, Angola is one of the most heavily affected countries in the world. But landmines are also a serious threat to millions of people in more than 60 countries throughout the world. It is estimated there is a landmine accident every 22 minutes, and this figure only counts the number of victims who actually make it to a hospital.
Although the treaty banning landmines, signed in Dec. 1997, is a significant step in eliminating the use of this type of military hardware, it remains largely ineffectual with three of the world’s top landmine producing countries – the United States, Russia and China – refusing to cooperate.
“We want to raise awareness, to educate and to take action,” says Philip Shae, coordinator of international services at Ryerson, explaining why the focus of this years’ International Development Week is on landmines.
In recent years he has visited and worked with non-governmental agencies in ANgola, Bosnia and Mozambique – three of the four most affected countries in the world.
“There is a strong sense of courage in these societies,” says Shae who vividly recalls the images of women carrying children on their backs, having to hobble on crutches to do their daily routine, after losing a leg in a landmine accident.
“The victims of landmines are affected particularly harshly because there are no means of social assistance,” explains Shae. “They are often forced to beg on the streets or become a burden to their families. Once you leave the hospital or medical post all they give you are a pair of crutches.”
While many Canadian organizations have been at the forefront of the international campaign to ban landmines, Shae believes Canada, like many of the other first world nations, still has a humanitarian responsibility to aid individuals in communities disabled by mines.
Since 1992, Canada has stopped developing and producing land mines but the parts and technologies used in landmines assembled elsewhere may still be produced here, Shae says.
For Kidima, International Development Week is only one of the projects he’s working on. With a friend from Angola who studies at Laurentian University, he’s also preparing a fund-raising campaign to help an Angolan humanitarian organization train local people in de-mining techniques. This project will create more than 100 jobs in rural areas and give the angolan people the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the newest technologies.
Kidima also wants to collect clothes and food to be shipped to Angola, where the need exceeds the resources.
“The Angolan government is ignorant and negligent. They only think about their own profit. People don’t realize how fortunate they are here in Canada.”