Angola: New lives with new legs

 

ICRC/L. Eskeland ref. Img_1044
Outdoor obstacle course at the Neves Bendinha orthopaedic centre in Luanda. 

 

Seven people are walking slowly, step by step, around a small outdoor obstacle course at Neves Bendinha. You can see the concentration on their faces. It is hard work to get used to a new leg, made not of flesh and bone, but of metal and polypropylene. Two women are taking a rest after a tiresome training session, leaning on the bars used for hand-support.

– I was in the field, looking for firewood with some friends. I was walking first. Suddenly there was an explosion, and I and my friend who was just behind me got hurt, explains 32 year old Virginia Maria Lundo. The blast of the mine burnt large parts of her face, and severely damaged her leg and her hand. At the hospital she had to amputate the leg and two fingers. Her friend was lucky, and received only minor injuries.

Virginia Maria is one of thousands of people who have been maimed or killed by the mines and the unexploded ordnance which litter Angola as a result of the 27 year long war. A couple of years after her own accident, her brother lost his leg while cultivating the fields.

Several years after the two incidents, Virginia Maria and her brother have now been able to come to Neves Bendinha orthopaedic centre in Angola's capital Luanda. Here they are fitted with artificial legs and taught how to walk with their new limbs. Neves Bendinha is one of three ICRC-supported orthopaedic centres in Angola, providing free-of-charge prostheses, crutches and other orthopaedic appliances to both civilian and military amputees. At the centre in Luanda, approximately 100 people are fitted with artificial legs every month. Some of the patients were injured years ago, others more recently.

 Peace, but problem persists  

In April this year a cease fire agreement was signed in Angola. In July the government ratified the Ottawa Treaty, which bans all use of anti-personnel mines. Nevertheless, unknown numbers of mines are still contaminating the roads, the fields, and areas used for wood collection and other essential household activities around the country. According to the UN, at least seven of the country's 18 provinces, accounting for around 40 percent of the countryside, are heavily mined.

– So far in 2002, mine victims represented approximately 80 percent of the total number of patients fitted with artificial limbs in the three orthopaedic centres assisted by the ICRC, says Max Deneu, Head of the ICRC Orthopaedic Project in Angola. – Since the recent cease fire agreement and the opening up of previously inaccessible areas, new mine casualties are adding to the already high number of amputees. In front of such a high demand for orthopaedic treatment, ICRC continues to emphasise the importance of sustainability of a quality service delivery under the management of the Ministry of Health.

Some of the amputees are walking around with relative ease, others are still insecure and are hesitating before tackling the various obstacles in the exercis e area. A beautiful young girl, dressed in bright red clothes, has taken her leg off and is sitting down on a concrete block with a tired look on her face. The brown leg is standing by itself next to her, looking lost in its brand new running shoe. The girl doesn't want to talk, doesn't want to be photographed. Her naked stump of a leg is too disturbing, and her tiredness too personal to share. It takes time to get used to the artificial leg. But it also takes time to accept the new shapes of your own body.

 New beginnings  

Others are more eager to talk. 55 year old Francisco Banganga was on his way to the beach to fish one morning, together with two other people. Francisco did not know that mines were buried in the road, and he stepped on one that tore off his right leg. His friends helped him to the hospital, three hours by foot, where he received emergency care.

– Since the incident, I have not been able to do much. I live in my son's house, we don't have enough food, anything, he says quietly. – I can't work anymore as a fisherman, but I will try to learn a new skill. It is difficult, but not impossible, now when I will get my new leg.

Some only need three-four days to get used to the new leg, others longer. Smaller children usually adapt a lot easier than the grown-ups. In-patients stay at Neves Bendinha for three weeks, in order to ensure that the prostheses fit and that the patients are able to function comfortably with their new limb.

Virginia Maria's two year old son is running around among the amputees, happily unaware of the dangers that he will return to when his mother has finished the fitting and the training in Luanda and will go back to her home village. Virginia Maria doesn't talk to her four children about what caused her maimed face and her lost leg. – I w ill, she says. – But now they are too young to understand.

 Need for awareness  

Still she believes that more awareness is necessary to avoid future accidents.

–The area was not marked and I did not see the mine before it exploded. People need more information, says Virginia Maria. Francisco agrees: – I had no idea that the area was dangerous before I stepped on the mine, he says. – Now I know...

For Virginia Maria and Francisco it is too late, they have already experienced the devastating effects of anti-personnel mines. However, many organizations - including the Angolan Red Cross with the support of the ICRC - are involved in mine awareness activities in Angola, trying to teach people about the dangers of mines and helping communities to prevent accidents.

But the country is large, and some of the estimated 3.5 million people who are internally displaced - in addition to tens of thousands of refugees who fled to the neighbouring countries during the war - have already started to return home.

Despite the efforts of mine action organizations, many of the returnees will have to settle in areas which have not been cleared, in some cases without knowing which places are safe and which they should avoid. Large parts of the country are still inaccessible for humanitarian organizations – exactly because many roads remain mined – hampering the efforts to reach the communities and raise the awareness where it is needed the most.

In the meantime, the number of people who learn about the dangers of mines in the same way as Virginia Maria and Francisco did is only increasing.