Tuesday, October 19

Life after stepping on an antipersonnel mine: a story against oblivion from Mozambique | Future Planet

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The footprints left by their walks in the sand are somewhat different from those of the others: one foot more marked than the other, small circles at the ends. First of all, because of the prosthesis, which is rough, probably too big for his small frame. The second, for the walking sticks, essential to get around. He waddles while walking, slowly and not without some difficulty despite the years that have passed since the “accident.” Because that’s what he calls it, as if it were a misadventure on which no responsibility could be claimed. Slowly but surely, Celeste José preferred to walk to the meeting place: the terrace of Lina’s cafeteria, in the center of Massaca. Manuel Joâo and Sofía Elface are already waiting there. Their lives are not much alike, but they coincide in something: the three of them live with one of their limbs amputated as a result of having been at the wrong time and place.

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Manuel Joâo (53), Celeste José (50) and Sofía Alface Fumo (39) are children of the civil war that was fought in Mozambique between 1977 and 1992. The three survived despite the fact that they were close to losing their lives because of one of the hundreds of thousands of mines laid by those African fields that were home to their ancestors, but which for them became in death trap. The three also draw the same unique footprints when walking through the dusty streets of their town, 40 kilometers from Maputo.

The 15-year conflict in Mozambique left more than five million displaced people, more than a million dead and an indefinite but large number of wounded. And to these we must add those left by the previous war, between 1965 and 1975, for the independence of the country. Both suffered to a large extent the consequences of antipersonnel mines: in 1994 the organization Human Rights Watch estimated about 8,000 amputees based on hospital care records, most of them civil. The Government estimates that people with one or two amputated legs they represent 20% of the 475,000 registered with some disability.

“In Mozambique nothing is being done. It seems that our problem is nothing ”, Celeste José hurts. Mozambique was declared a mine-free country in 2015, after intense work in which more than 171,000 artifacts scattered throughout much of the country were removed, which led the lists of the territories with the most mines in the world (40 million explosive devices have been destroyed worldwide but there are still 110 million active). But although the war and the mines ended, this was not the case with the consequences for their victims. Almost 30 years after the end of the conflict, they report having been forgotten and left to their own devices.

Manuel Joâo was drafted into the Frelimo army during the civil war.  I was 13 years old.  He stepped on a mine while on duty.  His partner went blind and he lost a leg.
Manuel Joâo was drafted into the Frelimo army during the civil war. I was 13 years old. He stepped on a mine while on duty. His partner went blind and he lost a leg.ÓSCAR CORRAL

“As I was a military man, I had rights presenting my documentation, but they didn’t give me anything. In the papers it says that the aid exists, but in reality it is not like that ”, affirms Joâo, who was recruited into the Frelimo army in 1983 at the age of 13. He was on duty in the surroundings of Massaca when he stepped on the mine, although when he relives the episode he does not regret the leg he lost so much as the fate of his partner. “He had damage to his sight, he suffered a lot and now he is still in bad shape because he cannot see and has to walk with a blind man’s cane to be able to walk.”

The rights Joâo refers to do not exist in practice, he asserts. Aid with transportation, with medical assistance, with child support … The claims of mine amputees are reduced to one: that what was promised to them for their condition as survivors when their country signed the Treaty be respected of Ottawa on the prohibition of antipersonnel mines. Under the terms of this document, the Government must ensure orthopedic rehabilitation and follow-up services, social and occupational inclusion, among other aids. “Y that the veterans have always been treated better than other people who also have deficiencies. All because of corruption ”, criticizes the ex-military about a phenomenon that is widespread enough in Mozambique so that figure among the last positions (149 out of 180) of the ranking of the most corrupt countries. “None of us have been treated well. The local government can say that it is complying, but we do not receive anything ”, he completes.

Sofía Elface Fumo, 39, lost both of her legs in 1993 when she stepped on a mine on the way to her family's farm in Massaca, southern Mozambique.
Sofía Elface Fumo, 39, lost both of her legs in 1993 when she stepped on a mine on the way to her family’s farm in Massaca, southern Mozambique.ÓSCAR CORRAL

On the part of the authorities, reality prevails over the treaties: Mozambique it is one of the ten poorest countries in the world; In the health field, it has 2,500 doctors for its 30 million inhabitants and the means are scarce for all. In 2017, the Department for People with Disabilities reported that human and financial resources are insufficient to meet the needs and that the country needs international support for medical care, rehabilitation and other specialized services, as published by the Landmine and Cluster Monitor, an international program that investigates and monitors the situation of these munitions in the world. “The reality is that after Mozambique was declared free of landmines, there was a decline in donor investment in associated disability issues, including assistance to survivors,” concludes in an article James Kearney, Organization Director Action on Armed Violence.

Mozambique, on the other hand, is a country where almost 70% of the population lives largely in rural areas, something that entails added problems, such as the difficulty of reaching health services. The Government, however, has a National Plan for the care of people with disabilities, including mine victims. In the end, they are international organizations and other national non-profit organizations, such as the Forum of Mozambican Associations of People with Disabilities (Famod) and the Mine Victims Assistance Network (Ravim) who work the most to give visibility to this population group. But with limited resources.

Celeste José stepped on an antipersonnel mine while on her way to work in the family garden in Matola, Mozambique.  Was 16 years old.
Celeste José stepped on an antipersonnel mine while on her way to work in the family garden in Matola, Mozambique. Was 16 years old.ÓSCAR CORRAL

Sitting with Celeste José and Manuel Joâo is also Sofía Alface Fumo, whose case is already known because she is one of the protagonists of the series Mined Lives of the journalist Gervasio Sánchez, who for more than 25 years has documented his life and that of other survivors of these weapons in different parts of the world. Alface lost both legs in 1993, when he was walking with his sister to the machamba –Cropping fields– and got a little off the beaten path. I was 11 years old. “I was the one who stepped on the mine and I was left with both legs amputated. My sister had injuries to her body and died in the hospital ”. He speaks softly, slowly, without fuss, as if the years that have passed and the times he has told his story in public have somewhat mollified his feelings.

Alface gained some visibility for the work of the Spanish reporter and also because the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, who lived in Mozambique for many years, made her the protagonist of his trilogy The secret of fire. But for her life has not been easy. “When I was a child, in the year 95 or 96, things were better, but now they are worse. So it was considered every so often if you had to change [la prótesis] When you were small and you needed a bigger one, they changed them, but now it is more difficult, ”he says. Mankell, who died in 2015 and whom she describes as a father, was the one who got her current prostheses, something that has saved her many headaches.

And like Alface, Celeste José has also suffered indifference in the hospital since she stepped on another explosive device, at the age of 16, and also in the machamba, the place occupied by millions of rural African women who survive thanks to their effort cultivating the land, the same that hid the mine that tore off her left leg at the knee. “I went to the hospital last March and they told me they had no material. I replied: ‘I can’t walk, please, just fix my foot ”. As she speaks, she feels the artificial limb, lifts the long skirt slightly, and a weathered piece of wood peeks out above the sock. “They realized that the base was rotten, but they told me they had nothing to repair it.”

Mozambique was declared a mine-free country in 2015, after intensive work in which more than 171,000 artifacts were removed.

A wry laugh arises from the three survivors when asked if it was easy to build their lives. “I never had a job because I entered the Army as a minor. I grew up in it and the only job I knew how to do when I was injured was to be a military man ”, remembers Manuel Joâo. Today he is unemployed and urges someone to hire him. “I have several children and the law says they would have to help us, but instead, I support them, I help them so they can have a future tomorrow.”

Alface, for his part, learned to be a dressmaker and when an NGO gave him a sewing machine, he decided to go that way. “I have a sewing workshop, a small business, but it is not easy: I have four children and it is not easy to help them, feed them … As a disabled mother I have problems, I have to maintain the prostheses, pay for some things … It is difficult ”, He asserts.

Manuel Joâo walks on his crutches through the center of Massaca, a town in southern Mozambique.
Manuel Joâo walks on his crutches through the center of Massaca, a town in southern Mozambique.ÓSCAR CORRAL

Celeste José, who also has children, managed for years as a housekeeper, mainly to wash clothes. But he left because he found a job in a chicken farm with the Encontro Foundation, a local organization that has worked for rural development in Massaca for 25 years. The same one that also built the house in which she lives today and that has awarded a school scholarship to one of her five children to attend Primary.

Prosthesis. Prosthesis. And a third time: Prosthesis. It is the unanimous response of these survivors. What they would ask if a politician listened to them. Neither forgiveness nor grudges; only tools to make their days easier, to continue in the gap, to see their grandchildren grow, to continue supporting their children, not to cause problems. Because the former soldier says that he, with his limbs in good condition, can drive a vehicle for up to seven hours, that he even has a license and gets anywhere, but that without them he can no longer take the car, that he has to ask That they take him, that they bring him … Which is a nuisance. “The needs are many for people like me, and what the Government can help me will be fine, but what I really need are legs,” he concludes. Celeste José agrees, and Sofía Alface agrees, in the spirit of not losing heart: “We are here, we are willing to fight, but I need to be healthy to be able to help my children and for them to achieve something better in the future than I had.”

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