In Shona, the primary language of Zimbabwe, chimbambaira once innocently meant “small sweet potato,” until becoming a slang term for landmines that continue to kill and injure people going about their daily lives. We recently traveled to Burma Valley in Zimbabwe to see firsthand how U.S. efforts to help Zimbabwe safely clear landmines and unexploded munitions make a life-changing difference for area residents.
The once-thriving farms of Burma Valley, so named by European settlers for its climate’s similarity to Burma, were a prime target for guerrilla fighters during the liberation war of the 1970s. Government forces — from what was then Rhodesia — laid landmines in the valley along the border with Mozambique to deter incursions before a 1980 peace agreement ended the conflict.
As our trucks bounced along dirt roads, we saw the minefield’s strategic location. Forested mountains hug the narrow valley, and another 100 meters from the minefield is the border, merely a formality in this area. Relatives live on both sides, and Mozambican children enter Zimbabwe to attend the nearest school. Before the minefield was cleared, they did so at the risk of their lives.
The minefield held the local communities back from rebuilding and recovering. Land suspected to contain landmines could not be farmed or used by livestock. Collecting firewood was hazardous, and footpaths offered only marginal protection for accessing the local dam and community well.
With U.S. support, Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) surveyed and cleared the landmines, completing operations in 2015. Mrs. Musitarira, a local resident told us, “Life is now safe.” With an infant on her lap, she added, “We were afraid, thinking if I walk in this place I’ll be destroyed… now the children are free; I used to fear when I couldn’t see the children in my vicinity.”
Thanks to mine clearance, Mozambicans can now access the Zimbabwean health clinic six kilometers from the border; the nearest Mozambican clinic is 80 kilometers away. For clearing a minefield only four kilometers in length, there were more than 5,000 beneficiaries. We saw how villagers had built three new homesteads with corrals for livestock and were now able to farm again, raising profitable crops such as maize, beans, tomatoes, watermelons, and passion fruit. The tilled earth gave us hope that chimbambairas can be restored to its original meaning.
Over the last four years, the United States has provided more than $7.6 million for humanitarian demining in Zimbabwe, of which $3 million was provided in 2016. Since 1993, the United States has inves
ted more than $2.6 billion to clear or destroy landmines, unexploded ordnance, and other dangerous conventional weapons and munitions in more than 95 countries.