Credit: Medill National Security Reporting Project

Editor's note: DEADLY DEBRIS is a three-month investigation by a team of students at Northwestern University's Medill Graduate School of Journalism that examines the deadly legacy of the United States' use of landmines and cluster bombs around the world and its $3.2 billion effort to clean them up. Medill students reported the series from Cambodia, Iraq, Ukraine and Mozambique.

MASSINGA, Mozambique — One afternoon last February during Mozambique’s rainy season, 16-year-old Florencia Artur Manhiça walked down the hill from her home looking for firewood near a fallen tree. Suddenly she was on the ground, dazed and bleeding. Her arms were burned and her right leg was a snarl of flesh and bone below the knee.

The landmine Manhiça stepped on had been laid to protect an army battalion positioned atop the hill during the country’s long civil war, which lasted from 1977 to 1992. Since then, more than a dozen organizations have worked to clear the war-ravaged country of more than 1 million landmines that the fighters left behind, as well as untold numbers of cluster bombs, mortars and other unexploded ordnance.

Florencia Artur Manhiça was 16 years old when she lost her leg to a landmine that had been placed atop a mortar round to make a bigger explosion.

Documents suggest that at least one of those organizations had already cleared the site in Massinga sometime during the past two decades. It had also been included on Mozambique’s national database of mined sites, only to disappear around 2012 without specific resolution. 

As the Maputo government raced to clear its last known 200 minefields by the end of 2014 to meet an international deadline, the existence of the dangers posed by this particular site had been long forgotten.

“I chock it up to information management,” said Hans Risser, a technical advisor with the United Nations Development Program in Mozambique. “And in this case, it’s a very tragic example of where a young woman lost her leg.”

Since the accident, the site has been the subject of much hand-wringing by the international demining community that has fought so hard to make Mozambique mine-free. No one is certain why it wasn’t accounted for, or cleared, and they say it certainly shouldn’t have been forgotten.

Maize withers on the stalk while the deminers work to clear the land.

Until the early 1990s, the field where Manhiça lost her leg was a key strategic military position long controlled by the Mozambique Liberation Front, or FRELIMO, the party that led the nation since its independence from Portugal in the 1970s. It even had its own name in the national mine database: “Batalhao 275,” or “The 275th Battalion.”

“The name of the place, it was a battalion base, tells you that this was a major area,” Risser says.

To these experts, the accident is a stark reminder of a much larger problem that they have wrestled with internationally for decades: The underlying survey work upon which mine clearance depends is an almost impossibly time-consuming, expensive and imprecise task. It is also one, they say, where the consequences are tragic, and often deadly, when mistakes are made.

Mozambique is, in many ways, a case study of all that can go wrong in the still-evolving field of mine surveying, in which the explosive remnants of war are identified, mapped and prioritized so they can be safely removed. The US government alone has spent more than $54 million since 1992 on survey and subsequent cleanup efforts in Mozambique as part of a broader $3.2 billion mine action effort. The United Nations and other donors have contributed many millions more here.

In some cases, the surveys were so misguided and inaccurate that they simply missed huge swaths of minefields, subjecting Mozambicans to deaths and injuries that could have been avoided, according to dozens of interviews and a review of records in Mozambique, Washington and at the United Nations in New York.

In others, Mozambique marked some areas as mine-free after expensive surveys and cleanup efforts, only to find out — sometimes years later — that they were not. In one province, more than 300 mines were found under villagers’ beds and in their fields, and officials believe that may not be an isolated case.

Two of Mozambique’s four major government surveys grossly overestimated, and then underestimated, the country’s mine problem. One labeled millions of square meters of land as possibly contaminated when much of it contained no explosives at all. The other declared millions of square meters of land mine-free, when it was still riddled with unexploded ordnance. Years of futile and expensive mine clearance efforts were wasted at a time when those resources were needed elsewhere.

Now, more than 20 years after clearance efforts began, Mozambique has become something of a success story. It is finally on the cusp of declaring itself “impact free” from mines. That will make it the first to do so among the five countries once listed as the most heavily mined nations on the planet (the others are Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Cambodia.)

Recently, Manhiça struggled with her 2-year-old son as she reached for a pair of wooden crutches that lay in the sand floor of her home. She hadn’t returned to school, and in a short interview, says she isn’t sure she ever will. Upon leaving the hospital, no one mentioned the possibility of a prosthetic leg to help her get around.

Six weeks after clearance began, the fallen tree where Florencia Manhiça lost her leg was still several meters away. Deminers use known accident sites to triangulate and identify other possible mines.

But Alan Johnson, operations director for the non-governmental organization Handicap International, says Manhica is lucky just to be alive. As Johnson’s clearance team reached the tree where she lost her leg late last summer, it found several more mines in a neat line. To enhance the explosives, the Mozambique military had planted mortar shells the size of footballs under each of them.

“She’s pretty damn lucky, really,” Johnson says. “I have to wonder if it was just the way she was standing or something or how she was positioned … by all rights, an 82-millimeter bomb and an anti-personnel mine, she should be dead.”

A state of landmine emergency

In the early 1990s, the United States declared landmines a major international crisis, and launched a global campaign to provide assistance. “We made a conscious decision to try to support landmine removal in as many countries as possible,” recalls Pat Patierno, the director of the State Department’s Humanitarian Demining Programs from 1998 to 2003.

Mozambique was an obvious choice. In 1992, it was reeling from 30 years of fighting, first for independence from Portugal, then a civil war involving foreign mercenaries and guerilla fighters. As the United Nations began the slow process of post-conflict stabilization, landmine clearance was a top priority.

Dozens of humanitarian aid organizations had come to help with medical support, reconstruction and education. Millions of people displaced by the conflict were streaming home. And they all depended on safe roads to travel and safe places to live and work.

But clearing landmines requires knowing where they are. And in a country that is bigger than Texas, combing through every meter of land was out of the question, given the urgency of the task. In 1993, the UN tapped The HALO Trust, an NGO based in the UK, to provide the first landmine and unexploded ordnance survey of Mozambique.

Mozambique's 1994 demining map for Sofala province, and The HALO Trust's full 1994 survey.

One aid worker said NGOs wanted young and unmarried volunteers. They even joked that orphans were preferred, a testament to the dangers of the task. Armed with little more than Land Rovers and a sheaf of papers, the 18 surveyors fanned out in two teams, focusing on what was accessible — main roads and large communities. Where roads and bridges were out, they used helicopters and even canoes.

HALO’s field workers canvassed locals and aid workers while researchers looked at military documentation to identify the most likely areas to look. Guy Rhodes was a part of that first mapping mission. He says it was as much a race to find land that wasn’t dangerous as it was about finding mines. “There were a million refugees in Malawi and they needed to be resettled [in Mozambique],” he says.

Everything was recorded by hand and faxed back to HALO’s office in Maputo, the capital. After six months, they had identified 981 sites of possible contamination, mostly along Mozambique’s major roads. The maps were filled with black lines traced across the country.

The information was sent back out to demining NGOs and other aid workers. Four NGOs began mine clearance, each with slightly different methods of clearance and record-keeping.

That first survey barely scratched the surface of Mozambique’s mine problem. Rhodes, who is now director of operations for the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, says one of the problems was that surveyors relied on local residents who didn’t yet know much about where the mines were lurking. With so many people displaced by the fighting, “they hadn’t interacted with the contamination or had accidents,” Rhodes says.

Imperfect approaches, insurmountable task

Countries began to ban landmines in 1999 in accordance with the Ottawa Treaty. With it came even more urgency to get mines out of the ground.

But even as the international community rushed to sign the mine ban treaty, no one knew just how much explosive material was out there, or how to go about finding it. There were no established guidelinesfor finding and clearing mines, and UN-approved International Mine Action standards wouldn’t be established for two years.

By 1999 the State Department’s Office of Humanitarian Demining programs (now called the office of Weapons Removal and Abatement) had spent close to $20 million in an effort to survey and clean up Mozambique’s landmines. That same year, a State Department report said Mozambique was still littered with more than a million of them, just as it had in its 1994 report. It noted, “The lack of landmine location records renders it impossible to give a more precise figure.”

The Maputo government established the National Demining Institute to formulate a national plan for dealing with the crisis. The level of explosive contamination was the biggest unknown.

Two years later, the land estimated to be filled with mines spiked sharply, thanks to the findings of a new international organization called the Survey Action Center.

The Vietnam Veterans of America, several NGOs and the United Nations established the SAC in 1998 in an attempt to improve mine surveying. They believed the priority should be to find where landmines were having the greatest social and economic impact on communities, focusing on those first.

They did that through landmine impact surveys. These detailed studies launched in some of the world’s most mined countries, including Yemen, Chad, Thailand and Mozambique. Even though the mine ban treaty required nations to clear all known landmine sites, the surveys targeted population centers and transportation routes to save more lives and promote economic stability.

“If there’s a landmine in a glacier where nobody goes, who cares? If there’s a landmine in a school yard, you care. That landmine has far greater impact,” explains Bob Eaton, SAC’s director.

Mozambique’s survey, at a cost of more than $2 million, was one of the first, and the methods were still being refined. Canada funded most of the survey, while the US contributed $72,000. Wilkinson and Associates, a Canadian group of sociologists specializing in outreach to indigenous populations, carried it out, spending three years interviewing locals in 1,800 communities about where they had found explosives and experienced casualties.

The Landmine Impact Survey overestimated contamination in many areas, but it missed contamination in others. In 2003, The HALO Trust resurveyed sites in four northern provinces of Mozambique. The team surveyed 433 sites, and found 282 had no contamination. They also found 89 sites that were contaminated but not on the 2001 survey.

The teams triangulated the landmines, drawing polygons on the survey maps. Everything inside became a suspected hazardous area. Ultimately, they catalogued more than 470 million square meters of land.

In 2003, Mozambique received $18 million in international funding and reported only 14 casualties, down from 80. It seemed like the country had a handle on its landmines. But then things started to fall apart.

Demining teams began realizing that many of the areas they were clearing were false positives, containing few or no explosives. The reason: Wilkinson’s researchers hadn’t been trained to identify mines. So when communities thought there was an explosive object, the team simply accepted it, marking off vast swaths of land around it.

“Its purpose was not to be exhaustive and clearly map every mined site,” one NGO official working in Mozambique told the Landmine Monitor, an annual publication of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, referring to the impact survey. He said a “technical survey” should be done before demining, by trained demining experts who know the explosives used during the conflict.

Rhodes agrees. “They had the best possible intentions,” he says. “It’s approximate information, and these sites need to be investigated closer. Many of them should be rejected.”

But follow-up surveys were rarely done, records and interviews show. As a result, the sites remained in the national database until they were demined. That’s also likely the case in many of the 18 other countries where Landmine Impact Surveys were conducted.

When it came time to clear a site months or years later, deminers didn’t want to take chances. Fearing liability, they usually chose to demine all the land rather than do additional surveys, and often found nothing.

Mozambique’s demining institute eventually concluded that almost 60 percent of the land suspected to contain mines was cleared without finding a single explosive device. The amount of wasted time, money and effort wasincalculable.

“The mid-2000s were dark days for the national mine action program in Mozambique,” says Risser. “Some of the operators were pulling out, donor funding declined.”

In 2007 only two NGOs shared $3.5 million in the country, down from $17 million in 2000. With only two years until it was to be mine-free there were still more than 45 million square meters of land contaminated, according to the national database. By 2012, a new survey had brought almost $14 million in international funding to four NGOs. But renewed interest from the international community didn’t mean that Mozambique had fixed its survey problem.

By 2007, funding dropped to $3 million and the reported casualties had climbed by almost 50.

There were other problems too. Due to bad information management by Mozambique’s National Demining Institute, records were lost and maps overlapped with one another, causing confusion about who was clearing what.

All of this set the stage for years of wasted efforts, during which landmines continued killing and maiming civilians and deminers at a steadily increasing pace.

Signs of progress, then setbacks

That confusion created the impression, at least publicly, that Mozambique was on the verge of being mine free. Some NGOs declared success and said they were moving on. Internally, however, the Maputo government was scrambling to figure out what went wrong — and the clock was ticking.

By 2007, The landmine impact survey of 2001 was seen as widely inaccurate. The blue markers above are sites that were cancelled without finding any explosives. But just as the land impact survey overestimated hazardous areas, the 2007 baseline survey underestimated contamination, missing more than 30 million square meters of contamination, much of it in high impact areas.

As a signatory to the landmine treaty, Mozambique had promised to be mine-free by 2009. It asked for an extension, blaming the delays on the 2001 impact survey and other problems.  An extension to 2014 was granted, and the country launched its third major survey in 15 years.

This one was based on a new approach that was becoming popular at the time known as land release. These surveys start by looking at documented landmines and explosions, instead of high-impact areas with unknown levels of contamination. Another difference: surveyors are trained deminers.

What they found was stunning: 541 sites with mines, covering more than 12 million square meters. Once again, Mozambique drafted a plan to clear the remaining mines.

By 2008 donors and deminers returned to Mozambique. Funding quadrupled, allowing demining NGOs to whittle the 541 sites down to 185 by 2010. The international community cheered, but once again, Mozambique had missed the mark, this time in the opposite direction.

“There was an assumption that after 14 years of demining, all the mined areas had been mapped,” says Risser.

But the 2007 baseline survey missed 30 million meters of land that contained explosives. “We were supposed to be doing 12 million square meters, and [we actually had to do] 42 million square meters.”

As provinces were declared mine-free, authorities wanted to be sure they weren’t leaving anything behind. They began going district-by-district, reviewing and resurveying. This approach uncovered thousands of mines along the border with Zimbabwe, around major dams and power lines that run along the highway from Maputo to South Africa.

Once a mine is identified, it is clearly marked. At the end of the day, any explosives found are detonated.

Over the next few years, surveyors also discovered mines in places they’d cleared before, thanks to the district surveys and improved technology.

Locals began resettling in a cleared area of Tete Province, near the Cahora Bassa Dam, in 2007, after it was declared free of mines. They built houses and farmed the land. But soon they began finding mines again. Norwegian People’s Aid, which had done the original cleanup, returned in 2012 to resurvey the land.

“They found landmines buried under peoples’ beds that they didn’t know about,” says Risser. More than 300 mines were found in homes, fields and paths. These were minimal metal mines that were nearly impossible to detect with the metal detectors used in 2007. Additionally, erosion had covered some of the mines with hard-packed soil.

“With the technology available at the time, the deminers were doing everything they possibly could. There were still missed mines,” Risser says. He said the site reflects the continuing challenges of demining; the same could be said today.

It took four months to begin demining the field where Manhiça lost her leg. The last injury on the battalion site had been in the 1980s, before the civil war ended. But now the people who lived nearby were afraid to go near it, including the farmer who planted the field. His maize withered on the stalks, but he didn’t dare enter.

Johnson assesses the situation, trying to figure out how to get the sluggish progress jumpstarted.

When Handicap International was finally able to get its mine clearance equipment down the sandy, rut-filled path, the farmer forbid them from entering. He feared their machinery would shred his crops. Clearance was painstakingly slow. The brush made it too dangerous to deploy the team’s mine-sniffing dogs, so the dog handlers and machine operators worked only sporadically. The demining team was left with gardening tools to clear dense underbrush and find the mines.

By July, after four weeks of demining, about 1,000 of the site’s 80,000 square meters were clear — a little more than 1 percent of the task.

Alan Johnson, operations manager in Mozambique, was dismayed by the progress, but resolute. “We’re going to be here until the end of the year, if we have to clear this by hand,” he said.

Hanging over Johnson was a deadline. The week before, representatives from more than 80 nations had met in Maputo and congratulated the country for again being on the cusp of mine-free status, as the country had pledged to clear all of its known minefields by December. During four days of meetings, no one mentioned Mozambique’s troubled history with its mine survey.

Five months before the deadline, a spate of pre-election violence also slowed mine clearance efforts across Mozambique. In Inhambane, Handicap International had to relocate a team to contend with the site where Manhica lost her leg. But nine months after her accident, they finally completed their work and the province was declared clear of all known minefields.

Looking to the future

Mozambique expects to be mine-free by early 2015, but authorities expect they’ll continue to find explosives missed despite all their survey efforts. As funding drops off and NGOs shift focus to other humanitarian needs, local police and military are learning how to pick up the slack.

By the end of 2014, only a handful of sites remain to be cleared in the center of the country. Once demining is complete, Mozambique’s military and police will be responsible for handling any residual explosives that are found.

Meanwhile, experts say Mozambique’s monumental struggles can offer hope — and lessons learned — to many other countries still struggling with mines and other unexploded ordnance.

They’ll point to the successes — especially the unprecedented amount of cooperation between the Maputo government, donors like the United States and NGOS. More than 180,000 landmines have been cleared, and deaths and injuries from mines have dropped precipitously.

The most important lesson, they say: There are no cheap and easy shortcuts when it comes to mine clearance. Surveying, especially, is painstaking and expensive work that must be done with both caution and pragmatism.

Risser says the last survey, going district-by-district, has finally allowed for more accountability by the local communities and the operators. “It’s also provided the government with a better tool for planning demining operations and monitoring progress,” he says.

Rhodes says it’s the only way that “villages, districts, provinces and ultimately the whole country can be declared free from known or suspected mine contamination.”

“Such an approach,” he says, “needs to be reproduced in other countries.” In a world that’s fighting for every dollar of humanitarian aid, and staving off donor fatigue, he says it’s the only way of providing “motivation to finish the job.”

Related Stories