International delegates say landmines put life on hold

Even though Mozambique’s civil war officially ended in 1994, United Methodist Bishop Joao Somane Machado says his country is now facing a different kind of threat: a war with landmines.

“The development of our country in peace depends on removing landmines,” explained Bishop Machado during an interview at the 2004 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. “This is a very critical issue. Two million mines are still here.”

Unexploded landmines are a threat in areas where food is grown and cattle are grazed and where children go to school, according to Machado. Women out gathering firewood for cooking find landmines instead. People are begging on city streets because farming is too dangerous.

According to estimates from the International Campaign To Ban Landmines, there are 15,000 to 20,000 new landmine casualties each year; the vast majority are civilians. 
Last year, 23 percent of reported casualties were children. In Mozambique, Angola, the Balkans, East Asia, Central America and beyond, even after the fighting stops, life is still on hold because of landmines.

More than 140 countries have signed the 1997 International Mine Ban Treaty. The United States is not one of them.

“If you want to build a church, you can’t. If you want to send your kids to school, maybe next year. If you want to eat, sorry,” observed Paul Dirdak, head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the church’s relief agency. “Life stops until this gets done.”

In partnership with an internationally respected Mozambican mine clearance company, ADP, United Methodists are making up to 12.8 acres of land a day safe. Using a process that combines mechanical land clearance with trained dogs and human de-miners, the United Methodist Committee on Relief has accelerated a process that normally proceeds slowly. Purchasing two specially adapted “armored tractors,” the relief agency put de-mining teams into southern Mozambique that cleared more than 3 million square meters in 2003. All the de-miners involved were Mozambican nationals. 

Dirdak points out that while some U.S. military equipment manufactures hope to refit tanks for de-mining activities, post-conflict countries in the developing world will only allow non-military, modified agricultural vehicles to remove mines.

“They don’t want anything around that could be turned back into a weapon,” said Dirdak.

He also reports that no dogs have been injured in this work. In the years that United Methodist Committee on Relief has been involved with de-mining activities only one person on any of their teams has died a landmine-related death.
 
“This church wants to accelerate the rate and safety of de-mining,” said Dirdak. “The United Methodist Church is the only group doing this work without any government involvement.”

United Methodist Bishop Heinrich Bolleter, whose area of responsibility includes the Balkans, welcomes the news of UMCOR’s successes in Mozambique. In Kosovo, unexploded landmines have often been found in people’s back yards.

“I have experienced the great difficulties of these landmines in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo,” said Bolleter, who is also attending the General Conference. “If the church can help speed up the process of landmine removal then we should do all we can. Landmines hinder the peace.”

The Rev. Jose Mapsanganhe, director of evangelism for the Southern Mozambique Conference, encourages those who have supported this landmine removal work to keep supporting it.

“Part of our church’s mission is to help people develop a better standard of living,” he said. “Landmines stop us doing that.”

*LaCamera is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: (412) 325-6080 during General Conference, April 27-May 7. After May 10: (615) 742-5470.

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