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News“People cannot even trust the ground they are walking on”: landmines terrorize...

“People cannot even trust the ground they are walking on”: landmines terrorize Tigray

On Friday, March 22, 2024, a nine-year old boy suffered horrific injuries after he picked up an unexploded war remnant in the Hawulti neighborhood of Mekelle, seat of the Tigray regional administration.

The boy lost both of his arms and legs. A few minutes later, he was dead.

Two months ago, eight young children led their goats out to pasture in the highlands of Queshet, in Tembien. They, too, were playing when one of the boys, aged nine, accidentally hit the fuse of an abandoned explosive ordnance buried just beneath the ground.

Te’ntu Gebre, a woman in her sixties, was among the first to arrive at the scene after the accident.

“It was sheer dumb luck that the piece of wood the boy used to hit the bomb got stuck on the fuse,” she told The Reporter.

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She said the children were lucky to get away, although the boy who hit the explosive lost his right arm and is currently undergoing treatment in Mekelle.

The incident is not out of the ordinary for the residents of Queshet, as their homes are encircled by kilometers of land boobietrapped with landmines. The asphalt road leading up to Queshet is littered with the scars of exploded mortar shells, and every few hundred meters it is marked by little red signposts displaying a skull and bones.

The signs did not save Roman Hailemariam, a little girl killed by a landmine while she was out tending her family’s animals.

“She was out with the goats. She never came back to her mother,” said Getachew Girmay, her uncle.

Roman was six when she died in September.

Bahere Teka, administrative head of Queshet’s civil tribunal, told The Reporter that three people had lost their lives to unexploded ordinances in the last few months, while three more (all children) were injured.

The deaths and injuries have been registered by the Integrated Development Initiatives for War Affected People (IDI-WAP), a non-government organization that operates with a primary focus of explosive ordnance risk education.

It is providing support to those affected by these accidents in Ethiopia, and conducting assessments in the Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz and Afar regional states.

The organization has found that at least 1,225 people have either been killed or injured by unexploded remnants of war across 13 woredas in Tigray since the Pretoria Agreement was signed in November 2022. At least 182 people have lost their lives.

“The number grows by the day,” said Yeheyis Berhane, head coordinator of IDI-WAP. “We recorded two incidents on Thursday alone.”

The organization has found that two thirds of the victims, or 810 people, are children under the age of 17. Among them was Nahom Halefom, a 13 year old boy who was injured in the vicinity of Queshet.

“I was watching him while he was playing. I took my eyes off him for a moment. Then I heard the explosion,” Nahim’s mother told The Reporter.

She said that although everyone in the area rushed out at the sound, nobody dared enter the minefield to get Nahom out. Some of the neighbors ran to fetch veterans who have experience in navigating minefields, who eventually managed to rescue Nahom.

“My boy had lost one of his legs and an eye, too. He was in agony, unconscious. And all I could do was stand and watch and wait,” said his mother.

Getachew, who lost his niece to the explosives a few months ago, is one of the veterans who was called on to help get Nahom out.

“We have no idea where exactly these bombs are buried. All we could do was take an educated guess based on our past experiences, and luckily we managed to pull the kids out.”

There were two other boys alongside Nahom. All three survived.

“There was combat everywhere in Tigray. There is no piece of land where guns were not fired or where remnants of explosives did not land,” Yeheyis said.

He says landmines pose a serious threat in Ashegoda, near Mekelle, and in the woredas of Endaba Tsahma and Mekleta, near Adwa, where farmers have been unable to plow their fields for fear of landmines.

Last January, a team from the United Nation Mine Action Service (UNMAS) visited Ashegoda, where they were shown, among other things, an unexploded 100 kilogram bomb dropped into a family residence during the war. The bomb is still there.

“UNMAS witnessed the home. They’ve seen that the family is living in fear and agony,” said Yeheyis.

Mekelle is no exception when it comes to these remnants.

“There is an unexploded bomb that was airdropped into a bathroom at the Planet Hotel,” he told The Reporter. “It’s still there.”

The mines prevent people from taking their livestock out to pasture, fetching water, and collecting firewood.

“People cannot even trust the ground they are walking on,” said Yeheyis.

The residents of the region say they have appealed to the Tigray Interim Administration (TIA) to clear the mines. Regional and federal officials are well aware of the problems, but say they lack the resources or the mandate to act.

Meanwhile, a domestic organization called Tigray Humanitarian Mine Action has carried out assessments and educational awareness campaigns across five woredas in the region, as well as managed to clear a few dozen explosives.

A 2023 report from the organization, which has ex-military personnel as members, revealed 90 percent of all incidents involving landmines occur in remote rural areas. It has managed to clear 288 schools in Tigray of surface-level explosives but says it does not have the resources or equipment necessary to clear landmines in other locations.

“These experts had no life insurance, no adequate and proper gear. We are relying on them because people have no other options”, said Yeheyis.

The report concludes with a call for urgent intervention from UNMAS, as well as for a region-wide survey on unexploded ordnances to be carried out before displaced people return to their homes.

“The procedure is for the federal bomb diffusion and mine clearing squad to enter Tigray, conduct an assessment, establish a team of technical experts and then begin the clearing work in collaboration with UNMAS,” said Yeheyis.

A federal mine clearing squad is yet to be deployed.

IDI-WAP has repeatedly pleaded with the regional government to either expedite UNMAS efforts, or extend the proper mandate that would legally enable the NGO to perform the work necessary. Officials have not responded.

Yeheyis says, meanwhile, IDI-WAP is planning to crowdfund the financing needed to enable material costs for demining work.

“If the federal government does not move, if the interim administration decides to remain idle, we will get the job done,” said Yeheyis.

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