10 October 2007

L for Landmines

one of the most deadly legacies of 20th century warfare

This has not been an easy post to write. It is a subject that has lain buried in the recesses of my mind for the past 30 years. It is also a subject that is receiving a lot of attention world wide and is one that will continue to haunt the world for a long time to come. I do not look back on the Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe bush war as the glory years as some people do. I look back on it with sadness, because of the senseless loss of so many lives - for what………?

Today I want to share a few of my experiences during those dark years, to convey something of the horror of landmines and the lasting effect they can have on one’s life.

I was called up for compulsory military service in 1973 and it was during my basic training that I was first made aware of the use landmines in warfare. We were shown what was left of vehicles that had been blown up by land mines, to impress upon us the deadly effect of these weapons, and to ensure that we would always be on the alert for them. We were then taught how to find land mines, how to remove them and how to defuse them.

Note the sandbags in the back of the truck. They were used to absorb the shock and blast from a landmine explosion

When we went to the operational area, only two of our vehicles struck landmines. They had fortunately been mine–proofed, so there were no casualties. Sand bags in the bed of the truck were impenetrable. On both occasions I heard the dull thud of the explosions. The one was shortly after my section had been dropped off on patrol. The truck struck the mine on the return trip – we had missed it on the way in. It was a terrible feeling waiting to hear whether your mates were still alive and a great relief to hear that they were.

After I was demobilized my hopes of returning to civilian life were dashed, as I was posted back to the same operational area, where I had my last tour of duty with the army. I was employed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and was part of a team assigned to set up a new administrative district called Rushinga, near Mt Darwin. The area was wild and undeveloped in those days and I knew what the conditions were like and what to expect.

Traveling along those roads during the war years was quite hair raising. There were constant reminders of the threat from landmines – either unfilled craters caused by the blast or the remains of vehicles.

One of the stark reminders of the ever present threat of landmines - February 1974 near Mt Darwin. Note the water filled crater in the bottom right corner, caused by a land mine blast.

We took it all in our stride - on the one hand we were young and had no sense of our mortality, but on the other we were realistic enough to know that we needed to keep alert at all times.

Another view of the same truck. Note the ruptured fuel tank. These two guys, I was told, were both killed in action a few years later.

My colleague, Mike Shalovsky and I drove around in an unprotected Land Rover for several weeks, which was a very foolish thing to do. I had seen what had happened to a Land Rover that hit a landmine on that very road - it was the one shown to us during my military training. On one of our trips to Mt Darwn, I still clearly remember passing a military convoy and five minutes later we were called on the radio and told to stop, so that the road could be swept for mines. One of the trucks we passed had just hit a landmine. It could have been us - if we had hit it we would not have survived. (Mike, I leant this year, was killed a few years later when the vehicle he was traveling in collided another vehicle that had just hit a landmine at night).

After that incident we refused to travel in unprotected vehicles.

Our newly mine-proofed Land Rover at the Mazoe River - January 1974. We soon removed the doors as they became a hinderance if we needed to get out in a hurry.

I left Rushinga in March 1974 to go to university, as a serving officer with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It was a nice respite from the war, but I spent my vacations in the operational area, mainly because the Department needed the manpower and because our pay was boosted with danger money.

In 1974 and 1975 I spent three vacations at Chiweshe, near Concession. Much to the annoyance of the District Commissioner I took my car into the operational area on the second stint, so that I could have “wheels”. I was young and foolish and liked to break the rules. On my next stint I left my car at home, after being told of a young guy who had been killed in a landmine explosion, near to where I was posted.

At the end of 1975 I was posted to Mt Darwin and was sent to a number of outlying outposts, eventually ending up at a base camp at the Karanda Mission Hospital. The war was hotting up at the time and much happened in my last two months that I may write about later.

Christmas Day 1975 at Pachanza, Mt Darwin district. Our "keep" was flooded and we had to breach the protective wall to drain the water. The vehicle on the right was a "Rhino". Essentially a protective capsule built on a Land Rover chassis.

Towards the end of February 1976 I was due to return to university. I made the arrangements to leave, then announced to all and sundry that I would be departing the next morning. I was told late that afternoon that my replacement would only be arriving in two days time and was quite peeved that I had to stay on a few more days.

The next morning about an hour after I was meant to travel on that particular road we heard the land mine explosion - it was a civilian bus. I am convinced to this day that the mine was meant for me. As I traveled in a mine-proofed vehicle (Rhino) I would probably have survived, even though the mine had been boosted. Many of the occupants of the bus were not that fortunate. I saw the aftermath when the casualties were brought to the hospital - civilians trying to live out their lives being senselessly killed and maimed.

Mine field on the border between the Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe and Mozambique borders taken near Mkumbura in the Zambezi Valley on Christmas Day 1975.

In 1976 I met Sue and stopped going to the operational area during my vacations.

My next experience with landmines was in 1977 in Mtoko, where I was working as a District Officer, after graduating. I was married then and Sue was expecting our first child. Most days were spent in the operational area and I now had a different perspective on life. When I left for work in the morning there was always the chance that I would not come home alive. I made sure that I kept to the safety rules. I always traveled in a mine-proofed vehicle (Leopard); I only traveled in convoy and stuck rigidly to the speed limits – no more risk taking for me.

One morning I was due to go on the monthly pay run (no internet banking in those days) and my trip was delayed, much to my annoyance, as my colleague arrived late after a weekend of carousing in Salisbury. Shortly before he arrived the news came over the radio that two nurses going out to attend to a measles epidemic had hit a mine. Another case of unintended victims - fortunately they survived, but their field work did not.

Me and my black Labrador, Cindy, standing in the back of a "Leopard". It was a very succesful mine-proof vehicle built in sections. It you hit a landmine all you had to do was bolt the replacement section back on.

In my mind I can still hear the dull thud of a landmine exploding. I can still remember the sick feeling of waiting to hear who it was and if they survived. In the early days of the war our vehicles were not mine proofed. When they were the chances of survival were good, as long as you kept to the rules. I know one fellow who hit three mines in two weeks and still wanted to go back for more.

I knew many people who were killed and maimed in that war – family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances – many were blown up by land mines. I remember them as people – I still remember their faces and the times we had together laughing and joking or discussing our fears and our dreams. I remember the men cut down in their prime, men who never got to see their children grow up; men, some still boys, senselessly killed in a war that should never have been allowed to happen. I remember the pain of their families. Those memories will remain with me for as long as I live.

Aside from the physical and psychological damage they cause, landmines continue to have tragic, unintended consequences years after a war has ended. As time passes, the location of landmines is often forgotten, even by those who planted them. These mines continue to be functional for a long time afterwards, causing more damage, injury and death. (Just do a Google search to see what I mean.)

Many countries have signed a pact to ban the use of landmines, while others still continue to use them. I believe that it is time for all nations to stand together and call for a total ban on the manufacture and use of these awful weapons.


Ali said...

What a strong and powerful message, you write with much feeling and passion. Thanks for sharing

Peter M said...

These terrible things have been left as a legacy in many parts of the world, your description should be read by those who use this insane weapon

Neva said...

Wow....quite a post on a something that is so tragic.....glad you escaped injury but I will think about this for awhile......

Suzi-k said...

Those were difficult years, I still remember that feeling of saying goodbye in the morning, as if it was the last time, and then waiting till it was time for you to get home, barely aware that I was holding my breath as the clock ticked by.... but we were the lucky ones. In many parts of the world, and paticularly in Angola there is a huge percentage of the population who now stuggle through life with missing limbs... it is barbaric what men do to each other in the name of war!

mrsnesbitt said...

What a heart rendering post.
It is indeed monstrosities like this which bring us together no matter where we are in the world.


Andrea said...

Interesting post and Landmines is a good one for "L"

Mr. Mapper said...

Wow, interesting. Thanks for the comment on my blog.

Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

I feel very humbled reading your post. I cannot even begin to imagine the horrors you must have experienced there. I'm glad you have survived to bear witness to the random brutality of of war. Stray and forgotten landmines scatter our planet. What a great species we are, huh? ((x))

WalksFarWoman said...

Gosh Max - you do make us think - thank you. We tend to drift along in our cosy lives showing disdain at upsetting newspaper reports then having a cuppa as if it never happened. At the time you probably didn't realise just how much danger you had been in, it's just when you stop and take stock that it really hits home how lucky you have been to survive it all. A great 'L'.

karoline said...

oh max..what a heartbreaking tale, i am sickened by the destruction we wreak upon this earth and her inhabitants...how pathetic and sad to want to blow the limbs and lives to hell and back...that i am thankful you were safe is an understatement and yet...today, how many children world wide have lost parts of themselves inside and out because of malevolent madness?

Anna said...

Max-e wow what a story. I remember when I used to live in the small town back in Europe and we as kids used to go and visit old cemetaries to play hide and seek, we were always warned to watch out for mines. My dad had few friends that lost limbs as teenagers when playing with mines, throwing them into fire just for fun, a fun that turn into life long suffering. Thanks for sharing. Anna :)

Oswegan said...

Wow, that is quite a post.

I clicked here having confused you with another Max I know.

I'm glad I made the mistake.

I like your work and will be back.


Max-e said...

Thanks for comments Ali.
When you see first hand the indiscriminate destruction caused by land mines you cannot help but be anti.

Max-e said...

You are right about the "legacy" Peter. Parts of Africa are still riddled with landmines. Who wins - the arms dealers and landmine manufacturers.

Max-e said...

Hi Neva
This is a very sobering subject - if you have not been exposed to it, it is very difficult to imagine the horror.

Max-e said...

Hi Suzi-k, those trips I made into the operational area were not pleasant, they really played on my mind at the time, especially after K arrived

At least we came out unscathed and and have been blessed with many goods years together

Max-e said...

Hi Denise
Yes, landmines are monstrosities. The anti landmine lobby needs wider support to get these weapons banned throughout the world.

Max-e said...

Hi Andrea, thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Max-e said...

Hi Mr Mapper, it certainly is an interesting subject.

Max-e said...

Hi Carol
At the time I built a shell around myself - it must be an internal mechanism to protect oneself against the horrors.

I thought I was normal until we moved back to South Africa. I was so wound up that for six months I could not sleep unless there was a rifle next to my side of the bed.

There are still too many "lost" mines lying about the world

Max-e said...

Hi Walksfarwoman
We lived life in our own little cocoons. We were always aware of the danger but blocked it out, otherwise we would have gone insane. Wherever were went, Sue would drive and I would ride shotgun.
You are right it is only afterwards that the reaction sets in

Max-e said...

You are so right Karoline, mans inhumanity to man is sometimes unspeakable, and the perpetrators always have some justification for their actions.

A sad fact of war is that the civilian population, who just want to get on with their lives are the ones who bear the brunt of the violence, when they get caught in the cross fire.

You just have to look at the pictures from Angola and Mozambique to see how true this is.

Max-e said...

Hi Oswegan
Thanks for stopping buy. Glad you found it interesting. Will be stopping in at your site for a visit.

Max-e said...

Hi Anna
I take it those were relics from the secon world war? It is so sad how much misery has been caused by landmines.
Thanks for the comments

photowannabe said...

I appreciate your passionate thoughts and post on landmines. What a tragic and brutle piece of war. Thanks for sharing your heart with us.
Also thanks for visiting my blog and your kind remarks. Its most appreciated. I will be back again.

Oswegan said...

Thanks for your visit Max. I am going to give you a link as well.

Keep up the good work.


RUTH said...

A moving post. Thank you for not only highlighting this but reminding us of of the horrors of this "legacy".

Mike said...

Landmines really are a horrible weapon.

dot said...

I'm a little late but this is a beautiful post. It must be horrible to live with that fear.