Jeanette Dijkstra is the country director of the Mines Advisory Group in Angola, an NGO working on clearing landmines that were laid out during a conflict that lasted for 41 years. Here is her story:
“It wasn’t only a civil war, it was very much the cold war being fought in Angola”
Mines Advisory Group has been working in Angola since 1994. Angola is an oil rich and a diamond rich country. That has led to a war that lasted for 41 years. It started in 1961 with the liberation war from the Portuguese ruling. They became independent in 1975 and basically in 1976-1977 the civil war broke out and lasted until 2002.
It wasn’t only a civil war, it was very much the cold war being fought in Angola. The Russians, the Cubans and the Chinese were supporting the socialist communist side, and the Americans, the South Africans and some European countries, but less visibly so, were supporting the other side. We find mines from 22 different producing countries and that ties to who was fighting here. Both sides used mines.
An estimated one million landmines were laid in Angola. And many more explosive devices such as mortars, rockets, projectiles, handgrenades, airplane bombs, bullets, etc. were used during the fighting. The estimates are that from all the weapons used, any bullets, rockets, grenades, all the things that have explosives in them, between 10 and 30 % have never exploded. That’s still live ammunition and explosives lying in the fields, even if the war ended 20 years ago.
The landmines became prohibited in 1997, supported by Princess Diana who was one of the first internationally known people to give attention to this issue. We came a long way since the landmine ban treaty came into force now 22 years ago.
The goal at this moment, globally, is to be done with all landmines by 2025. But for countries such as Angola that is too ambitious with the current level of funding. We do think that it could be done in about 10 years.
“It’s the women who go fetch the water”
In Angola, the warring parties were fighting for power over bridges and access to water, to fertile land, to the diamond mines and to the oil fields. So the area where you find the prime land and the best access to water, those are the ones that tend to be the most contaminated with landmines. They were the most strategic in the conflict.
We still have a lot of minefields to pick from. So, which one do you clear first? We go for those groups that are the most marginalized by the fact that they are surrounded by weapons. Then, within these populations, it’s the women who go fetch the water. So that’s our first priority.
Often, villages are far away from the nearest water point, up to 7 km away, because landmines keep them from building their houses and their farm close to the water. If we clear those minefields, that means that women -and therefore their daughters- can stop wasting their life walking to and from the river.
If you look at the UNHCR indicators, 20 liters per person per day is the absolute minimum to keep yourself and your home clean, to drink, to cook, etc. Families are big in our part of the world. On average, every fertile woman gives birth to 8 children. So in those communities, if you have a family of, let’s say 10 people, they need 200 liters per day. If that is 7 km away that means women need to bring at least 2 or 3 daughters with them to be able to do that during daylight. So all these things tie into girls not going to school.
If you are pregnant and walking for water all the time, there is no chance to do anything else. You can’t grow produce for the market, you can’t send your children to school and chances to make an income are slim to none. So we try to liberate the access to water as soon as possible, and then after that, land for housing and agriculture and cattle farming, etc.
We have 2 rapid response teams that are EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) specialists and they are busy day in and day out. Even if we have been working here for 25 years, they still have more than enough to do. They leave the base every day.
“A large part of what we do is also confidence building”
Another big part of what we do is mine risk education in which we teach local populations what to pay attention to, how to mark an item if they find it and not to touch it for obvious reasons and how to contact us so we can come and remove it.
Clearance is the most expensive part of our job because it is literally meter by meter with detectors or machines and that is very slow. But the main purpose of landmine clearance is to do it in such a way that, obviously you remove all the mines, but you also take away the fear from the local population. So, a large part of what we do is confidence building. So when we are done clearing a minefield, we invite all the community, all the people in power, local police and army, our team, if possible I join myself and everybody sees (I am one of the very few white women in a thousand kilometers around!) that we all walk in and around the cleared former minefield with confidence.
It’s like a whole strategy, there is a whole system of confidence building behind it, because you can clear everything, if the population doesn’t trust that you did, they are not going to use it and then, why did you clear it?
“28% of our staff is female”
We have 215 people on the payroll at this moment, and 28% of our staff is female, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is! Because we come from less than 10% 5 years ago. This was a very male dominated industry until rather recently, but MAG is making massive efforts to get more women involved in landmine clearance, so we are moving in the right direction.
You can imagine in a society that is very male dominated to begin with, us coming and going “yes, we want female deminers”, that was not a natural development! It took a lot of talking to pass that bridge of sexism.I knew that we had an uphill battle to get the guys to accept that the women were easily as good -if not better- than several of them, and that worked really well.
We spent a lot of time training people on how to behave properly in a team and where to go if they feel like they are being harassed by a coworker. That is not just the message that the women receive, the men also.
We had a few examples of guys not listening and they lost their jobs because of it. And that made the rest of them more careful. And the women felt like they were heard. If they came to complain, we would not try to make the problem go away, we would actually address it and it would have consequences for the ones who crossed the line.
The women feel properly protected and the guys are growing into the system, they recognize that their female colleagues are actually really good at what they do.
“I’ve seen all the nonsense!”
For me, at the beginning when I was establishing my own network and building the contacts it did take a while for some of the guys to understand that I did know what I was talking about. What did help with that is that I am Dutch and I am very straightforward. I’m 1,80 meters so I’m taller than most people here, and I don’t try to be charming. I am very business-wise.
That takes time because of the business culture and the way things are done here, but I’m 5 years in this job, and 10 years in Angola. People now know that I do know what I’m talking about.
But it’s definitely an uphill battle, that’s for sure. We are nowhere near where we should be with that. Personal connections are key in doing business here. Every time somebody gets promoted we have to go through the whole song and dance again, with the new big General basically person in a position of power sometimes misbehaving and being a bit impolite and me just standing my ground, or sometimes they just want to talk to my male assistant and not to me. I’ve seen all the nonsense! But very patiently, we just keep rolling with the punches and I am having my seat at the table!
“It is difficult to keep donors interested”
What is lacking at the moment is funding. That is something that we are trying to increase. There are so many countries at the moment who have landmine trouble, including new open conflicts such as Yemen, Syria, Irak and South Sudan. Those countries are what we call in full crisis, and that’s where the donor money tends to go. Countries like Angola are called “legacy countries”. We are trying to solve something that was done to the population 20 years ago and that feels less urgent if that makes sense. So, it is difficult to keep donors interested.
Private companies also provide funding, but most of it is still coming from governments. I have a couple of leads but we have to be careful and do our due diligence to see if they are not into blood diamonds and humanitarian disasters. We are very careful because you can’t take money from bad organizations or bad people.
Obviously, a lot of countries which are still struggling with landmines are in the developing world. So the landmines are not their only problems, they also have problems with schooling, health, national resources crisis, etc. there are a lot of things that need funding and attention. So we are very happy that Angola is spending a lot of money now on clearing their landmines but we are still heavily dependent on outside resources to get the job done.
The international community has agreed 22 years ago that the world needed to be cleared of all landmines, so it’s very much an international effort to get it done.