“I would like to introduce you to my son Felix” translated Sergio, my travel companion and interpreter from the local dialect to English. He was speaking on behalf of the youngish looking father who had just introduced himself as George.
Standing in a remote village at the furthest western point in Mozambique before the land becomes Zimbabwe; George has approached us tentatively at first. His right hand extended for a handshake, laying his left hand on the wrist of his outstretched arm as Mozambican custom dictates.
I responded in my best Portuguese that I would very much like to meet Felix prompting George to spin on his heels and lead the way towards his mud hut on the opposite side of the makeshift village football pitch to where we had been speaking.
Advancing across the hard baked ground cracked into a mud mosaic by the intense heat from the African sun overhead, a bunch of children intently watched us approach. Once we passed the point considered by the youngest children as their safe distance from these approaching strangers, they frantically dispersed leaving only the older, bolder kids solemnly clustered together.
George gestured to one of the children and the group parted to allow one child to move to the front of the cluster. I immediately recognized this boy as Felix.
Felix is nine years old; the children he stands amongst are his school friends. Every day they leave their family’s huts, joining one another along the way as they travel along the well worn track from their village to the next to attend school. After school they retrace their steps playing their childhood games on the way until they safely reach home.
Each child has been sternly warned not to stray from the path. Each child knows they shouldn’t wander into the bush. But they are children and children do as children do.
As Felix slowly moved towards our group the sad reality of my ability to recognize this young boy I had never met before was solely because he moved with the aid of makeshift crutches. Felix has only one leg.
When Felix was 8 years old he innocently crossed a patch of shrubland close to his village. Tragically the land was peppered with landmines, a remnant of the long war fought well before Felix had even been born. He ran across one of the mines initiating it to explode right beneath him. Felix miraculously survived this horrific accident which has left him an amputee for the rest of his life.
Now when he walks to school he does so with the aid of his crutches. He can’t run like all his friends and working as a farmer or cow herder like his elders will be hard if not impossible for this young boy.
Mozambique is a country slowly recovering after suffering 20 years of brutal fighting. Sadly for Felix, his village is one of many in Mozambique where the aftermath of the war continues to resonate for its inhabitants.
In my job of mine clearance I hear stories like Felix’s all too often. Laying a landmine costs a dollar or so. Safely finding, clearing and destroying that landmine costs more than 100 times that and is a slow, arduous, painstaking process.
Landmines are indiscriminate and that’s the problem. Although laid during times of conflict, these powerful and destructive items of war can quietly lie for decades just a few inches under the ground until somebody sets the pressure of a footstep onto it. That somebody can as readily be a child playing a game of football with their friends as a soldier on patrol.
The 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, banning the use of landmines, has brought some constructive hope for the future but until the ban is signed and ratified on a global scale, the threat of yet another young life being permanently shattered remains. By 2009 most countries have signed although amazingly more than 30 have not –including the USA, Russia and China.
So what is the justification to continue in the use of landmines during conflict thus forcing communities like Felix’s to live their lives post-conflict in the middle of a minefield?
As Felix stood there perching on his tiny wooden crutches I failed to identify a single compelling argument.