Bitter harvest from killing fields: For the Mechem chief, mines mean money; but not for an Angolan woman. Karl Maier reports

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The Independent Online
LILA JOAQUIM GOMES, a 21- year-old Angolan peasant woman, and Vernon Joynt, one of the leading lights of South Africa's military-industrial complex, appear to have little in common.

Mrs Gomes lives with her three- year-old daughter and three young brothers in the slums of Malange, the central Angolan town under siege by Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita). Mr Joynt, an organic chemist, is the director of the Pretoria-based Mechem Consultants Ltd, the research arm of Denel, formerly the state-owned military conglomerate, Armscor.

Their lives, however, are inextricably linked by the multi-million pound international landmine trade. The relevance of landmines to Mrs Gomes' life is revealed when her shaking hands lift her dress to expose a blood- tipped white bone sticking out of a stump which is all that remains of her right thigh.

For Mr Joynt, on the other hand, mines mean money. He has been involved in research and development of landmines and other military equipment for the South African Defence Force for 26 years. Mechem also provided South Africa's client rebel groups in Mozambique and Angola with mines and other equipment.

Now that South Africa has emerged from isolation to bask in the glow of international support for its transition to democracy, it seems only appropriate that Mechem should also have adapted to new times. Today Mr Joynt has transformed himself and his company from landmine- makers to landmine clearers. Mechem is starting out in its new field trying to cash in by removing the mines it helped to sow. 'There are some mines in Angola which no one will be able to find without our help,' Mr Joynt said.

For example, the SADF put 27,000 mines, 9,000 with anti-lifting devices, in one minefield alone outside the south-eastern Angolan town of Mavinga, according to a South African mine specialist involved in the operation.

Mr Joynt said Mechem's first big break in the de-mining business came when it won a UN sub- contract to clear landmines in Mozambique last month.

His de-mining strategy, which international experts say is promising but still untested, depends on the canine nose. 'Dogs' sensitivity to smell is 1,000 times better than anything we can manufacture,' he said.

If they are ever used in Angola, dogs will have their work cut out for them. Angola is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. Between 9 and 20 million mines have been planted there since 1961, when the Portuguese colonial army began fighting nationalist guerrillas. Cuban troops, who intervened in the civil war, which broke out in 1975, to help the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and South African forces fighting on behalf of Mr Savimbi, also sowed vast minefields.

Since the collapse of Angola's UN-observed transition to democracy following Mr Savimbi's defeat in the September 1992 general elections, both Unita and the MPLA government armies have resumed mining. As a result, wide swaths of the countryside have been rendered useless to farmers, and towns in potentially rich regions such as Malange have been poised on the brink of famine.

Landmines have maimed at least 20,000 Angolans - one in 500 people - and killed thousands of others. Many end up like Mrs Gomes, who spent two months in a dirty hospital without a trained doctor and with severe shortages of medicines, bandages, water and electricity. Now she battles each day for a plate of maize porridge. She leaves her home each morning at 6am with Christina and powers herself on crutches down the dusty tracks through Malange's shantytowns to reach a feeding centre run by the Irish aid agency, Concern.

When she is feeling strong, she can make the trip in three hours. She begins the return leg at 3pm to reach home before dark. She has to sell some of the food she receives to pay the rent on her home and to look after her three younger brothers, who range in age from seven to 12.

The journey that led Mrs Gomes to this state of affairs began in early 1991 when Unita soldiers, then backed by South Africa and the United States, attacked her home village of Mangange. Her elder brother, Antonio, was the local chief, and the rebels hung him by the throat from the rafters of his home, slashed him with knives and left him to bleed to death. Mrs Gomes fled with dozens of other villagers to Malange.

'We had no land to farm in Malange, so we went to the sisters at Caritas for help,' she said. 'But there was not enough food for all of us, so I began going out into the fields to search for more.'

On 18 October last year, Mrs Gomes ventured into an area called Cazetta about three miles from the city in search of cassava to eat. 'We knew there were mines around, but we were hungry. I was walking with four other people along the footpath, but I was the only one to hit a mine. I passed out and was carried by my friends to the hospital, but after two months I asked to leave because there was no one to take care of the children.'

The high mine casualty rate among civilians in Angola and elsewhere has prompted calls for a worldwide ban to be imposed on anti-personnel mines. The problem, said Guy Lucas, who is helping to set up a 'central mine action unit' in Angola for the UN, is that from a military point of view, landmines work. 'I don't think anyone in the military would be prepared to support a total ban on mines because they are effective.'

Mr Joynt said that while South Africa sent mines to support insurgencies in neighbouring countries, the SADF had never used them to prevent infiltrations by the African National Congress' military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe. 'We never put mines in South Africa because we did not want to bugger up the country for years,' he said.

Angola did not benefit from such foresight and thousands have seen their lives destroyed. Mrs Gomes' husband, Antonio Miguel, left her after she lost her leg. He said she was of no use anymore and flew to Luanda. 'Christina often asks me why I do not have two legs like most others, but with so many amputees around, I think she will soon understand.'

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