BALAKU Kapendu clings to his walking sticks, his eyes pinned to the ground as he makes one slow step after another. His face carries a melancholic expression and wrinkled brow that reflect his burdens. As he stands in his â€˜shoesâ€™ â€” worn brown leather pads strapped to his knees â€” and looks up at me, I suddenly feel embarrassingly taller than my mere 5ft 6in and stoop. He is 53 years old.
Balakuâ€™s sad life started in 1997 when while working in his garden on the slopes of Mountain Rwenzori in Kasese district in western Uganda, a land mine blew off his legs.
Margaret Arach Orech, another victim, also recalls her experience. A landmine accident in Gulu on December 22, 1998 ripped off part of her right leg. She was rescued by UPDF soldiers who took her to hospital in a cattle truck.
She was lucky to have survived even though her leg was amputated below the knee. United Nationsâ€™ statistics show that worldwide, a life is lost to landmines every 30 minutes.
â€œLeaving the scene of the accident to get emergency medical care is a hurdle most victims face. Many lives are lost due to lack of immediate transportation to hospitals,â€ Orech says.
On April 4, 2006, Uganda, along with 30 other countries, commemorated the first International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance for Mine Action. A month later, on May 2, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) gave the Government two multi-purpose demining teams and two needs assessment teams; fully trained and equipped for humanitarian demining. They were deployed to undertake demining activities in Kaberamaido, Amuria and Katakwi districts; and landmine impact surveys in Lira and Soroti. This support was worth $850,000.
Landmines and explosive remnants of war kill or injure between 15,000 and 20,000 people in the world each year. Government records show that there are about 2,000 landmine survivors in Uganda.
The victims are rarely soldiers, rebels or any sort of weapon handlers. Usually, they are ordinary folk going about their daily business. Balaku, a father of 13, was a peasant. Children are particularly vulnerable, as they easily mistake such oddly designed devises for toys. While most landmines and unexploded ordinances (UXO) are hidden, some are brightly coloured, skillfully shaped and exposed.
As Uganda marked the International Mine Awareness Day, the families of two children who had been killed by UXO in Kasese district only days earlier were still raw with grief. Another seven injured in explosions in the northern district of Gulu in March lay in hospital, maimed for life.
Urgent help for return and recovery
Landmine survivors in Uganda, live in three environments; in internally displaced peopleâ€™s camps in northern Uganda; Teso sub-region in the north-east and in the post-conflict areas in western Uganda.
In camps, the victims need protection from mental, psychological, physical and sexual abuse. In post-conflict areas, their rights need to be ensured for a protected and self-sustaining return and recovery process. Those that are unable to access land or have limited mobility and cannot farm require special attention because they are extremely vulnerable without means of a sustainable livelihood.
Ugandaâ€™s main duty bearer in this regard is the National Mine Action Programme (NMAP), launched by the Prime Ministerâ€™s office in 2005.
The NMAP is responsible for advancing crisis prevention and recovery in line with the Governmentâ€™s National Policy for IDPs, the UNDP Country Programme Action Plan and roles within the International Mine Ban Treaty.
In many parts of the conflict affected districts, the extent of landmines/ERW contamination is not yet known.
â€œIn some areas, IDPs are already returning to their villages and preparing their fields. Accidents are happening with serious consequences,â€ says Cornelis Klein, the outgoing UNDP Resident Representative.
Vincent Woboya, Mine Action focal person in the Prime Ministerâ€™s office adds that mine incidents recently occurred in some areas where displaced people had gone in search of food and firewood while others were trying to go to their gardens to cultivate.
Mine action involves activities such as: demining, including minefield surveying, mapping, mines/ERW clearance and stockpile destruction. It also entails victim assistance, including emergency medical attention, rehabilitation and reintegration, sustainable livelihoods and monitoring; mine risk education (teaching people how to remain safe in a mine-affected environment) and advocacy to discourage the use of landmines and support total ban.
According to Save the Children, an international NGO, it costs between $300 to $1,000 to locate and clear a single landmine. Through the inter-agency consolidated appeal for 2006 the UN and NGOs are seeking about $5m (about sh9b) for mine action in the humanitarian and early recovery context in Uganda.
UNDP is implementing a number of projects in the areas of technical advice and assistance to the Prime Ministerâ€™s office and the NMAP, mine action needs assessments, community level mine risk education, area surveys, mine/ERW clearance and victim support.
â€œA lot more needs to be done. I call on all bilateral and multilateral organisations to contribute more to the mine action programme. People should be returning home in dignity and security,â€ said Klein.
To landmine survivors, dignity means a few things that the government, partners and society could easily provide. It means access to emergency and continuing medical care including limb replacement; becoming productive and self reliant, finding acceptance among the population and enjoying their human rights.
UN records show that many victims die and those who survive are usually left with some type of disability for life. However, survivors are often abandoned and become entrapped within themselves. Relationships and spirituality are affected and people live in a state of hopelessness.
The physical pain fades with time, but no temporal measure can heal the emotional wounds left after an explosion. When victims lose their sense of sight or hearing, or when stumps replace limbs and a once stout man is permanently reduced to his knees, not even the smartest surgeon in the world can arrest the emotional bleeding. No anaesthesia or analgesic can numb the pain left etched on a victimâ€™s soul.
â€œFrom experience,â€ says Orech, â€œthe most difficult period for a landmine survivor is not in the hospital, but after leaving hospital. This is the mental part; the inner body remains sick and cries for help!â€
A promise for the decade
Ugandaâ€™s vision is to be â€œfree from the most severe humanitarian problems caused by mines/ERW by 2009.â€ This is only three years away, but it is achievable.
â€œThe battle can be won, but victory will depend on the unflagging commitment of all the players involved,â€ the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, Lt. Gen. Moses Ali, said on the Mine Awareness Day.
On April 4, 2009 when the world will mark another Mine Awareness Day, Balaku will be 56, still standing on his knees and clutching the twin rudimentary crutches. Hopefully then, he will afford a smile in the consolation that his children and grandchildren will never have to suffer his fate. That is, assuming, that Uganda and the world deliver on their promise.
Gone with the blast: The landmine problem