Teklewold Mengesha is the head of the Ethiopian Mine Action Office (EMAO), which is in charge of clearing an estimated 2 million mines contaminating almost all parts of the country. Here the former Ethiopian army colonel explains why mine clearance in the country must be community driven and how mine contamination hampers national economic development.
QUESTION: How serious is the threat to Ethiopia from landmines and unexploded ordnance [UXO]?
ANSWER: The seriousness and impact of landmines on our country cannot be underestimated. We have concrete data from the Landmine Impact Survey which is being carried out by Norwegian People’s Aid. Mines have been found in most communities in the war-affected areas [the 1998-2000 war with neighbouring Eritrea], and some mines, UXOs and bombs even date back to the  Italian invasion. These still cause casualties and show us the seriousness and impact of landmines in our country. Even now people are suffering.
Q: Do you have any ideas of the numbers of people affected by landmines?
A: We estimate there are more than 2 million landmines in the country and estimate that some 60 percent of the [70 million] total population of the country are affected. When I say 60 percent, we talk about the mobility of the people and how they are affected. Our country is rural by nature and people work on the land, agriculturalists. So the land is used, and if landmines are in the area, they highly restrict movement. Even transport is highly affected. Worldwide, Ethiopia ranks 10th in terms of contamination.
Q: EMAO was set up in 2002. Why has it taken you so long to tackle this issue?
A: Actually there was an organisation, run by the Ministry of Defence - the Ethiopian de-mining project, which was supported by the US government. These companies were military; there were about three, and they were starting to clear seriously affected areas. The Ethiopian de-mining project was started in 1995, before the conflict [with Eritrea]. They had cleared a lot of areas and helped communities clear the land.
The start of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea meant that the work stopped. So, even though this office was established recently, the work had been started in 1995. We replaced the Ethiopian de-mining project. We used the experience that was there, but it was too costly to continue through the army, and the international norm is not to use military de-mining. In order to get funding, you must use civilian authorised programmes. As far as we know, we are the only government that started our own de-mining without any assistance.
Q: You estimate de-mining the country will take another 20 years. Why so long?
A: You can’t clear a football field quicker if there is one mine or a million mines. You still have to clear the football field. If we just take other countries' experiences, it takes a long time. Landmines are very sensitive and can be fatal for people clearing them. It is very technical work. It needs time, and there are standard operational procedures to take out a single mine.
There are also challenges to finding mines in war-affected areas. Metal detectors are of limited use, and so you need to poke to find if it has found a mine or a piece of metal. This is why we are upgrading our approach. We estimate it will take us - not to make it mine-free, but impact-free - 20 years. We are trying to increase the number of our teams so we can speed this up. The more funds and teams you have the quicker it will be.
Q: What implications do landmines have on the development of Ethiopia?
A: Our country’s aim is to eradicate poverty and speed up economic development. Infrastructure is vital to achieve these aims. We have to construct hydroelectric power stations, lay electric lines and build roads. But these can all be delayed because of mines. Regional authorities contact us because during road construction they find mines. They have to stop their work and call us. But we can’t reach them on time, so work is delayed.
Even here in [the capital] Addis Ababa there have been delays on power plants after mines were found. They are asking us to clear the land, but it is not a priority area because people have not been displaced from this land.
Q: So how do landmines affect the lives of the rural communities, especially in the border areas?
A: If you just take the recent conflict with Eritrea, that border area is 1,050 km, from Djibouti to the north of Sudan. That area is highly contaminated by landmines. The people want to move and farm, to exchange goods and travel to markets, but these days it is not possible because of the high contamination of mines. They have so many accidents because of the mines. The same with the Sudanese border, Gambella and other areas, even Djibouti and around Somalia and Moyale in the south on the border with Kenya they have found mines. There have been different conflicts in our country, civilian conflicts and different invasions by different regimes. All of these have come to affect this country, especially in the border areas.
Q: How often are you seeing casualties?
A: The biggest problem we have is lack of information, so that while we are not having casualties registered, daily they are occurring. Even the de-miners get injured. But local communities will often not report the information. The victims are plenty. People also do not pay attention to the dangers: if they find a mine or UXO, they will use the shells as mortars to crush teff [an Ethiopian staple] or coffee beans.
Q: How do you work with regional governments?
A: We have established a coordinating office with full authority. The coordination between the regional authorities is done through that office, and if they have any questions concerning mine activities they will apply to us. If they have a mine-affected area, they will give the priority list to us.
We take into consideration their points with our project partner, the Emergency Rehabilitation Programme Unit, and if they agree, we will send a send a general survey team to study how that area affects the local community situation. We also have the Landmine Impact Survey, which is working in the country to detect landmines. Every authority in the region just has to work and coordinate with them to establish the impact of landmines.
Q: Who would prioritise which areas you clear - the local community, regional authorities or EMAO?
A: According to international and national mine-action standards, we would give [the regional authorities] a guideline before they reach a decision saying this is of paramount importance. We will explain how to select the priority areas. After giving these ideas, it is the communities, from the base, who say this is our area that is affected. And the communities within the regional authorities appeal for support. Then we are directed to survey the area and will then prepare a task force for each affected area. So it is from the bottom up: the local communities start it and then we check and see how serious it is.
Q: And how do you involve local communities in mine clearance?
A: In this organisation we have a mine-risk education department, which works closely with the community. It is working at every de-mining site and operates its community liaison. The process of highlighting that there is a minefield starts with the local community and ends with them. They are there when the field is finally declared cleared. They have ownership of it.
Q: Once you have cleared a site, how do you show them the site is cleared?
A: Under international and Ethiopian national mine action standards, there is a procedure to handle the cleared land. After clearance there is quality monitoring. We have quality control personnel, monitors who are at the work sites. Before we finish the work, there are benchmark points and cemented concrete to show the boundary of the ex-minefield. So far we have not found any mines after a field has been cleared. We have had no injuries. There is also a certificate which documents that the field is cleared and it is signed by me saying it is 100 percent clear. The local authority will also sign and it is handed over to the local community.
Q: Once you have cleared a site, whom are you accountable to and how?
A: According to those same international and national mine-action standards, we are accountable for our work. For each project we are accountable to the supervisory board and the prime minister.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions