SOUTHERN AFRICAN NEWS FEATURES
ANGOLA: WHEN MUMMY IS A DEMINERby Nina Monsen
Paula Maria Romaro, 27, is deeply concentrated with her work in a minefield in Cassua, a deserted village along the road between N'dalatando and Dondo, in western Angola. Suddenly her mine detector alarms her. Paula carefully removes the upper layer of soil with a small spade and discovers the tail of a mortar grenade.
Cautiously, she lifts the unexploded, almost half a metre long grenade up, holding it from underneath. She carries it to a small area marked by notices and signs about the danger of mines. When 20 or more mines are found and placed there, the de-miners detonate them with a remote control standing many hundred metres away from the mine collection. This operation leaves only dust behind, except from a big crater where the explosion took place.
Paula is the only female de-miner in Angola. She works an eight-hour-shift day, with one hour on the minefield, and one-hour rest. The heat can be unbearable in this part of Angola, especially for the de-miners, who work under direct sun and are clad in an overall, a splinter-protection vest and a visor.
The shift system assists the de-miners to maintain top concentration at all times, because as the de-miners themselves put it simply: "A de-miner will make only one mistake."
Paula is a single mother of two children. "I do not want to get married because I want to keep my independence. I want to be free," she says, adding that many husbands do not want their wives to work.
"The first days at work were hard. Although I passed the same exam as the men, I had to prove myself all the time -- prove that I could be a good de-miner," she says.
Asked how they feel about their female work mate, her male colleagues reply: "She is a very good de-miner. She has proved that women can be de-miners."
Paula has definitely paved a way for other female de-miners to come, but she feels that women are generally scared of the landmines more than of the idea of working in a male dominated area. Most of the male de-miners are former soldiers and have handled mines during the war.
Paula was struggling to feed her two children when she applied for the job as a de-miner. “It was primarily the money that drove me into de-mining, but also the fact that most Angolans know someone who has been mutilated by mines. I wanted to help in the struggle against landmines,” she explains.
Cassua had around 100 000 inhabitants when the civil war started again in 1992. Clashes between the opposition, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA) were particularly bloody along the Dondo-N'dalatando road.
UNITA had great interest in Dondo because of the nearby Cambambe power plant, which delivers electricity to Luanda. The rebel movement never managed to occupy Cambambe, but took control of Cassua. When UNITA was forced away by Angolan government troops, they left the village full of mines.
The people who used to live in Cassua are now Internally Displaced People (IDP). Most of them have moved to nearby towns and some have built small villages near Cassua, while they are waiting for Paula and the other de-miners working for Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) to clear Cassua of mines. Since January, more than 331 000 IDPs have been counted, and the number is increasing.
So far, 44 landmines and a high number of unexploded mortars and missiles have been found in the Cassua village. NPAs mine-clearance operation will be completed in a few months. Then the refugee inhabitants of Cassua will return and rebuild their village.
Paula and the other de-miners work and hope for peace. The people of Angola have not experienced lasting peace since the freedom struggle against the Portuguese started in 1961, except from a short period in 1991-92. After the Lusaka Peace Agreement in 1994, the situation has been tense and now in 1998 it is tenser than ever.
Paula's job is very important. UN figures estimate that there are 9-15 million mines in Angola. The country has the highest per capita landmine deaths and amputations in the region - one in every 400 people in Angola are amputees as a result of landmines.
Many of the mine victims are women and children. They are the ones who mainly farm the land in Angola because many are widows of men killed in the war. Women are also exposed to mines when collecting water and looking for firewood.
Paula with her grade seven education is better off than most women -- only 30 percent of Angolan women are literate. Maternal mortality is also very high, estimated to 1,281 deaths per 100,000 live births. This is five times higher than in South Africa.
Angolan women have historically had to provide food and other basic needs for themselves and their children. Throughout their colonial control of Angola, the Portuguese separated men from their families - first through three centuries of slave trade and then through an extensive system of forced labour on plantations.
The gender roles in Angola are traditional. Women work very hard, but remain in private domain and are not decision-makers. There are some exceptions, like the two very important female ministers of Petroleum and Fisheries, but key political posts in Angola still remain in the hands of men who make the decisions affecting society, such as making and continuing the war.
Paula, however, does not give up. She keeps doing her dangerous job to improve the situation for Angolan women and men. Life goes on for her and her two children, who are waiting for mummy to come home from the minefield for the weekend. (SARDC)