-- Political Issues: Landmines --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on landmines.
You may also want to visit our Landmine Campaign Appeal page.

  • September 1995 - Mines of Mozambique by Bruce Cockburn

    The road from Quelimane to Nampula winds prettily between lines of mango and cashew trees planted by the old colonial masters to draw people to where their activities could be monitored. It takes a long time to do the drive. The road rolls and heaves like a rough sea. A lot of rainy seasons have come and gone without anyone working on its repair. During the long years of war much of the countryside was emptied of people. Those who remained in RENAMO-controlled zones were put to work, not maintaining the road, but cutting shallow trenches in rows across the paved portions in order to slow vehicular traffic to where it would be vulnerable to ambush. Even though, since the peace accord was signed in October 92, scrap metal dealers have been busy, you can still see the twisted remains of convoyed trucks here and there along the roadside.

    While scavengers sort out the physical detritus of war, Mozambicans in general are trying to sort out its psychic debris. What was the true course of the war? There was virtually no communication between people caught on opposing sides -- and it's only now that one can grasp the real shape of recent history.

    In 1975, Portugal surrendered its East African colony to the Mozambican people. Not willingly. After a number of years of struggle for independence waged by the Mozambican Liberation Front - FRELIMO - and parallel wars in its other African colonies, Portugal found itself exhausted. A coup by young army officers against the decades-old Salazar dictatorship brought democracy to the European nation and freedom to its last few overseas posessions. These weren't the only such struggles going on at that time. The neighbouring country of Rhodesia was the scene of fighting between a white racist government and black nationalist guerrillas who found sympathy in Mozambique.

    Ken Flowers, who was then head of the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organization, includes in his memoirs an account of his involvement in the recruiting and training of RENAMO (Mozambican National Resistance). This was a group of disaffected Mozambicans led by one Alfonso Dhlakama whose function was to destabilize that country, and keep it from effectively supporting Robert Mugabe's rebels.

    This activity continued from '75 to '80. Then Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe became president. At this point the reins of RENAMO were handed over to the South African military.

    Apartheid South Africa moved to maintain its own security partly by controlling the exports of its land- locked neighbours, Botswana, and the new Zimbabwe. Open seaports in Mozambique and Angola would interfere with this agenda. RENAMO became the instrument of South African foreign policy, completely destroying whatever vestigial infrastructure existed in post-Portuguese Mozambique, almost succeeding in closing the ports at Nacala, Beira and Maputo.

    RENAMO also became famous for atrociously brutal tactics with respect to forced recruitment and the treatment of prisoners.

    By the end of the eighties, the horrors of civil war and the ill will engendered by FRELIMO's questionable economic policies had been compounded by an extended period of drought. RENAMO was starving. South Africa was undergoing major change. FRELIMO had no more money to put into the war effort. The Soviet Union, its principal backer, was extinct. Under these conditions, with the involvement of the UN, an end was negotiated to the war.

    The peace accord provided for the creation of democratic institutions and the holding of elections which took place a year ago.

    When I was in Mozambique in '88, there was no evidence that RENAMO had a political platform or anything like legitimacy. They were simply "the Bandits". So it came as quite a surprise to me, and I think to others, when they emerged from the elections with something like 40% of the vote. There was plenty of evidence in '88 to support the former characterization of RENAMO, evidence which still abounds. I talked with the nurse in charge of a rural health post at Luala, in Zambezia province, who was blind in one eye because RENAMO soldiers had driven a pin into it. Nevertheless, that picture didn't tell the whole story. In its attempt to replace colonial structures with a Marxist social order, FRELIMO had gone out of its way to humiliate and render powerless the traditional village leaders who had previously been supported by the Portuguese as a means of controlling the population. This, among other things, alienated large numbers of people. RENAMO turned this alienation to its own advantage by presenting itself as the friend of the traditional leaders. It seems, too, that peasant communities, when threatened by the war itself, had to choose between fleeing toward RENAMO or toward FRELIMO bases, and their choice then led to a similar choice at election time. There was an understandable feeling of exhaustion with war and the sense that if RENAMO didn't do well, the fighting would continue. Angola is currently providing an example of that scenario.

    So where are we now? After 500 years of colonialism and 25 years of war, we have democracy in a country which for the most part does not value or even recognize any community larger than the village. Even at that level you don't see the acknowledgement of interdependence among people that you find in some other places. To what extent this is a mentality spawned by the war is not clear, but there's no doubt that the "Sauve qui peut" concept is what prevails.

    We have a government with virtually no funds- which has, in the years leading up to the peace and those since, been compelled to restructure the country's economy at the behest of the World Bank and friends, opening the way for unfettered capitalism. We can now witness the spectacle of drastically underpaid teachers finding it necessary to charge students for the release of their marks; of thousands of demobilized soldiers without work or other support falling back on banditry to survive, who sometimes rent their weaponry from underpaid police who themselves frequently resort to mugging passers-by to augment their wages. (About this I can speak with great authority, having been held up by 2 cops outside my hotel in Maputo).

    All this in contrast to a feeding frenzy on the part of international business and its local agents. There are oil companies, mining companies, logging companies, Japanese trawlers, entrepreneurs of all sorts, many of them Portuguese and South African. The irony is inescapable. Even the HIV virus, kept at bay by Mozambique's relative isolation during the war, is appearing as a colonizer.

    Economic restructuring, to be fair, created an incentive to produce, and this has led to an improved situation for some people. It has also, though, provided massive incentives for corruption. There are consumer goods in the country, but the minimum wage is about $17/month - not enough to buy a 50 lb. bag of flour. The cost of importing such goods is whatever you can negotiate with the nearest crooked customs official. Social spending is gone - sound familiar? Yes but the effects in a place like Mozambique are beyond our worst nightmares. The central hospital in Nampula City used to be decent, if poorly supplied. Now its a cesspool of misery. The mentally ill wander the hallways stinking of urine and raving. The walls are filthy. People who can, bring their own brightly patterned cloth rather than put themselves in contact with the hospital bedding. The gurney used to transport patients who can't walk is an old blood stained stretcher rigged with wheels. Fecal-smelling wards are crammed with people, most of whom seem to be in for treatment of infections acquired while undergoing operations at this very institution. If you need an IV, you have to pay. If you need blood, you have to buy it. If you need medicine, your family has to comb the pharmacies in town because all the drugs have been sold off long since by the hospital staff. The closest thing to a bright spot in the whole scene is a cop who's there because he shot himself in the foot while chasing a "suspect". He complains because his superiors haven't come to visit. The government can't raise salaries for fear of losing the support of the World Bank. So you have people producing in a modest way, but no money to buy anything and no means of carrying produce to market.

    The field against which this is happening is one of near total destruction of transportation, schools and stores in the wake of war, drought, and, in the north, a disastrous hurricane last year.

    The war killed all the cattle, drove away or killed the wildlife, destroyed nearly all the trucks, wrecked rail lines, left all but the major cities in ruins -- left rural access roads and fields polluted with landmines.

    With respect to this latter, Mozambique is typical of many Third World countries which have been the scene of wars, especially civil wars, in recent years. Over the past 2 decades the presence of anti-personnel mines in such places has come to constitute a major epidemic. The UN estimates that there are around 2,000,000 mines in Mozambique. Although people involved in the process of removing them feel that number is a little bit high, there are plenty to go around. There are plenty of dead and maimed Mozambicans -- 10,000 dead from mines during the war, and at least 500 in the last 2 years. These numbers don't include the injured, or those deaths occurring in remote areas which largely go unreported. The injured are generally disabled, who become a burden to their families; to what health care resources do exist; who are likely to further swell the numbers of urban beggars, contributing to the instability of society; and who can look forward to a very poor quality of life. Victims of mine accidents are most likely to be civilians, rural people who depend on a degree of physical fitness for their survival.

    The one-armed, badly scarred and blinded kid whose sister leads him around to beg from the foreigners at the riverfront cafe in Quelimane is representative: he hit a mine with his mattock while working his family's machamba, or garden plot -- well after hostilities had ended.

    When you talk to the technician in charge of the prosthetics workshop support by the French NGO Handicap International, he tells you that probably 60% of his customers are mine victims. The workshop is part of an orthopaedic clinic where patients come for consultation and fitting of artificial limbs, as well as physiotherapy aimed at helping them adjust to their prostheses. In one room they are navigating between parallel bars, getting used to walking without their Canadianas. Their what? Canadianas. These are the short metal crutches which are braced against the forearm. Nobody knows why they're called that, but we get a laugh from the bystanders when we explain that where we come from, women are Canadianas.

    Landmines come in many shapes and sizes, but they can be loosely divided into "anti-tank" and "antipersonnel". Anti-personnel mines can be further differentiated as "blast" and "fragmentation". Blast mines, as the name implies, work by simply blowing off parts of the body. Fragmentation mines work like a big grenade, sending shrapnel over a wide radius. There are various methods of triggering explosions, the most common being foot pressure, or a trip wire.

    Anti-tank mines are designed to blow the track off of 60- ton armoured vehicles and generally require a substantial weight to set them off. The front wheel of a jeep will do it -- or a road construction vehicle -- and there won't be much left afterward. Fortunately, anti-tank mines are present only in small numbers in Mozambique. The real obstacle to development is the anti-personnel mines, and the perception of them. It's worth pointing out here that unlike other weapons, mines are activated by the victim. Nobody is aiming them.

    Classically, mines are used by soldiers to deny access to an area -- e.g. to create a defensive perimeter around a base or town, or to prevent ambushes by laying them along the shoulders of a road. This application is one seen commonly in Mozambique.

    During the war of independence, the Portuguese laid mines in this way. In the late 70's, the Rhodesian forces mined the border areas of Mozambique to deter guerilla incursions. FRELIMO laid strings of mines around towns, hydro lines, military bases and key industrial sites. Private companies mined their own operations as well. The Canada Dry mineral water bottling plant at Namaacha near the border with Swaziland, is surrounded by 4 different rings of Anti-personnel mines. For all that, RENAMO still was able to capture and destroy the plant.

    Classically, too, records are kept of the location and number of mines, and the minefields are marked with signs and/or strands of wire. In practice very little documentation survives. Wire and sign posts are removed by people in need of building materials and years later nobody remembers where the mines are.

    Now -- when you're the guerrillas, you don't have large installations to defend, so your use of mines is different. And you don't keep records at all. RENAMO proved itself very effective at using its South African-supplied ones as a terror weapon. Put a couple on the trail where you might expect the enemy to walk, but maybe lay some near the local health post or in the schoolyard, or maybe don't lay any, but say you did. RENAMO used a lot of forced labour. In one case, a primary school teacher was put to work for several days carrying boxes of mines from one of their camps to an area where they were to be laid. He told his acquaintances what he was doing, and the word spread that the area was now unsafe. After the war, it turned out that he was only carrying crates of rocks -- that it was all a trick. It served the purpose though -- area denial -- and I wonder if anyone's farming that land even now? When you've seen what these things do, you're not inclined to take chances.

    Problem is, when you're a subsistence farmer, you have to farm or starve. So what do you do? You learn to live with the threat. You start to mythologize it. If your child decides to play with a fragmentation mine and is suddenly reduced to a few bloody scraps of clothing, it's because somebody's offended the ancestors. It's not because someone in Russia or Italy or China or the US manufactured a lethal device and sold it for 5 bucks so your low budget armies could put it in your field. It isn't obvious to you that the manufacturers' government will give its taxpayers money to the UN, so that the UN can hire that same manufacturers' expertise to remove the thing for a thousand dollars.

    A lot of effort is going into mine awareness training in Mozambique. These posters and Tshirts are part of that program. It was hard for me to judge whether or not it's working.

    A lot of effort and expense is going into de-mining operations, not all of them of the kind just referred to. The UN has a major program in place in the south of the country, training former soldiers from both sides in the location and destruction of mines.

    A couple of NGO's are also working in other regions. Halo Trust, a British group and the first NGO to have de-mining as its express purpose, is at work in Zambezia province, one of the worst infested areas. Norwegian People's Aid has a similar program in Tete province using trained dogs to sniff out mines where the soil is too high in iron for metal detectors to be effective. There is a reasonable hope that the problem of mines in Mozambique can be solved because of the relatively small numbers and because in many cases they can be worked around. Even though the things can remain deadly for as much as 50 years, given the money and the will to keep on clearing, and to build alternative roads to those that are most heavily mined, we can eventually expect to ease the situation to the point where life can be something like normal.

    This may be true of Mozambique, where the war is over and no new mines are being laid. It's not so true elsewhere. A year ago Mozambique was averaging 2 mine accidents weekly. At the same time, Angola was suffering 25/day. In Cambodia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and a host of other places, there is no short term solution.

    There is, however, a long term one. Only one. Anti-personnel mines must be placed in the same special category under international law as chemical weapons. They have to be banned.

    Mozambique is facing a frightening array of difficulties. Who will rein in the police? Where will transportation come from? Can it remain sovereign in the face of so much international economic involvement? How do you move a nation from a nearly pre-industrial state into the age of the microchip without being buried by the avalanche of change?

    In some respects, this is a country which is still at the tourniquet stage of recovery. It must be kept from bleeding to death long enough for it to get on it's feet. It's hard to know where to start to address the situation. One point might be this: I asked an activist for the disabled, himself crippled by a mine, what message he would like carried to the outside world. His response - tell them to stop blowing us up!
    -- from "Mines of Mozambique" by Bruce Cockburn, September, 1995.

  • 26 September 1995 -Commenting on the land mines in Mozambique

    When you step on a land mine -- it depends on which kind it is -- it either rips you to shreds or it takes your legs off.

    Now you can travel around the country, but you have to watch where you put your feet.

    The cities are still full of displaced people and many of them have missing parts.

    Cockburn said that despite the land-mine problem, Mozambicans are looking forward to building a better future.

    The people were optimistic, but there is also a real sense of uncertainty because the economy is so screwed up.
    -- from "Mines still threat in Mozambique, Cockburn says: Cross-country tour precedes visit to African country" The Vancouver Sun, by Kim Bolan, September 26, 1995 (Final Edition).

  • Fall 1997 - Commenting on the Landmines Treaty
    [Interviewer is Bob Duran]

    Bob Duran: What do you think about what's happened recently with the Land Mines Treaty? I thought, particularly since the issue got tied to the death of Princess Diana that there was no way the U. S. Government would pass on signing the treaty.

    BC: It's too bad that the U.S. and the various other countries refused to commit to sign. But the good side is that the rest of the world didn't let itself be arm-twisted into accepting the changes that the U.S. was holding out for. They wanted to completely gut it. If the treaty had been re-written the way the U.S. wanted it would have been absolutely worthless. Thank God it was signed in its original form and the majority of counties took a stand and said, "No. We need this treaty." Time will tell if it will have positive effect in terms of U.S. policy as well. There's some indication from what Clinton's said that the U.S. will go towards the same goal by its own route which would be fine. What's important is to get rid of these things. How it happens doesn't really matter. Clinton has instructed the Pentagon to find an alternative to land mines by a certain date, some years hence. Of course that could go both ways. They could come up with an alternative that's way more horrendous than land mines, but the intent is to find a way to avoid using these things that are so devastating to civilian populations and have so little value as a military device. With China's refusing the treaty I think it's in part their xenophobia but more because of profit. It stinks of profit because they sell so many land mines and that has to be a factor in their refusal to get involved. In any case a huge number of countries are committed to become signatories to this treaty and there's always room for more to join in, so it's a very positive move.
    -- from "Interview with Bruce Cockburn" by Bob Doran, Fall, 1997.

  • Circa 1999 - He credits his most memorable experiences of recent years as being "brief but intense" and largely non-musical a trip through Southeast Asia to Vietnam and Cambodia as contributors to searching for and reporting the truth

    "I'm amazed at the joy people exude over their circumstance...seeing the look and smell of poverty and refugee camps is humbling."
    -- from "Walking the Line With Bruce Cockburn",, circa 1999, by Heidi Drockelman.

  • July 1999 - Commenting on the effect of Princess Diana's death on the Landmine legislation

    "It was a God's gift for a good purpose. It's a sick way how things work, but it made the media give the landmine problem significantly more attention. Obviously her death made a big difference for some countries' willingness to sign the (anti-landmine) convention."
    -- from "The Rage of Bruce Cockburn", by Gerard Vos, Platenblad, translated into English by Arjan El Fassed, July, 1999.

  • 8 September 1999 - Of all the causes in which he's been involved, Cockburn says he's seen the most tangible results with the landmine issue

    "Otherwise, I learned right away with the Central American, and, to a lesser degree, Native American issues, that you're not going to live to see the results of your work.

    "The economic system in the world is being changed around us, in a negative way, a little more everyday, but not by people like me, and not by the people who are working on a more just arrangement. That economic relationship is at the bottom of a lot of what goes on. But if you don't have anybody (helping), then they'll never be a difference," he reasons.

    "You have to see yourself as part of a continuum, a part of a team effort, and the results of your work will be felt at some point in the future, if everything works the way it's supposed to. We have to trust that. You have to assume the work is worthwhile, even if there are no results. It's better to be working for good than not to be working for good."
    -- from "Cockburn Helping Out Kosovo Artists", Jam Music, 8 September 1999.

  • December 1999 - Commenting on the benefits to ban land mines

    KBCO: I've always admired you because musically you've spent a lot of time, put a lot of your effort into environmental causes and political causes in the'80's. I know you took a trip to Central America and Mexico which influenced a lot of your music. You've been doing some benefits on the west coast. I know that you performed in Kosovo in September and you were invited to Vietnam by the Vietnam Veterans of America. Can you talk about that?

    BC: Which one of those things would you like me to talk about?

    KBCO: I believe it was to ban land mines.

    BC: There's a connection among several of the things that you mentioned. That connection is the issue of land mines. We did a series of shows in California - we being EmmyLou Harris, who organized this thing, and Steve Earl - they were on all of the shows, I was in on three of them. The other sort of revolving cast included John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Griffin, a host of others - really good people, good shows, and generated quite a bit of public interest in the issue of land mines.

    If you live in North America, which we do, you don't tend to run across those things, unless you're in the military and have done service overseas. But when you travel in countries where land mines are a problem, you can't ignore it. At the very least, you're limited in terms of the places you can go because these things are sitting there in the ground waiting to get you. People who live there, of course, don't have the luxury of not going where they live, so they go out in the woods to gather firewood or fruit to eat or the kids go out to herd cattle or other farm animals or whatever and they hit mines and they blow up.

    And of course, they don't blow up dead, they survive the encounter and they're missing pieces at that point and they're condemned to a life of suffering and a life of being a burden to their families and on the social systems that they're a part of. It's a terrible and relatively easily solve-able problem in the world. It's a plague not unlike AIDS in a way. It's a 20th century creation. The cure, unlike AIDS, is very easily in sight. It's just a matter of people deciding that we don't need them any more.

    A lot of countries have made that decision - there's 136 or 137 countries that are signatory to an international treaty banning the manufacture and the use of land mines. Unfortunately the US isn't one of those countries. So the purpose of doing shows like the ones we just did is to help get people aware of the need to help get the US involved in that. To be fair, to keep it in perspective, the US is doing good work in terms 'de-mining' of taking the mines out of the ground that are there, and there's about 100,000,000 of those, so there's a lot of work to be done in that department.
    -- from KBCO Interview, December, 1999.

  • January 2000 - Commenting on touring and the land mines issues
    [Interviewer Joseph Roberts.]

    Joseph Roberts: ....(tour dates) I hope our readers have a chance to hear your new music. What's your intention with this tour [editor's note: Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu ]

    BC: On tours the songs are the prime concern. They are most truly themselves when they're being performed. I just did a five week run in Europe followed by a week of benefit shows in California around the land mines issue. That's something that needs to be addressed.

    JR: It's just horrific.

    BC: People are deliberately making devices that are designed to blow off limbs of innocent people indiscriminately. I mean if somebody picks up a gun and goes to war voluntarily at least they're consciously taking chances. Land mines are just there like a disease.
    -- from "Conversations with Bruce Cockburn", Common Ground, January, 2000, interviewed by Joseph Roberts. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.

  • 20 March 2000 - Commenting on people's reactions to the landmine issues

    "There are people who wilfully don't want to know, that's one category of person," he says. "But there are also people that are generally interested in things once they're confronted with issues like this, but who just haven't had the opportunity to be confronted."

    "I didn't know anything about land mines before I was asked to get involved (with anti-land mine causes)," he says. "And in the process, you study up on the issues to learn what's going on. That's how you become informed and, in my case, emotionally involved."
    -- from "Weight of the World", Ottawa Sun, 20 March 2000, by Ian Nathanson.

  • 16 October 2000 - Commenting upon his travels to Mozambique and the use of landmines

    "In 1988, I went to Mozambique for the first time in behalf of Canadian NGO's who pooled their resources to provide for the displaced from the North - displaced from years of civil war. My job was to observe and then speak about it at home. I came back and made speeches and did a magazine article.

    No songs came out of that because my energy went to the speeches. Then years later I went back, and now the war was over but the people couldn't get back on the land because of the danger of land mines. I went there and met people who had suffered."
    -- from the Institute for Policy Studies', 24th Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards, 16 October, 2000. Transcribed by Ruth White.

  • December 2000 - Commenting on the landmine problem

    "It's a huge problem and of course, the people who bear the brunt of the problem are those who encounter mines and have to live with the disfigurement and maiming that's inflicted upon them. It's easy for us to say we don't want to deal with it because those people are not among us. When you go to Mozambique or Cambodia, where farming is the basis of their whole system, you see people who've had mine accidents all over the place. In almost all cases, they're begging because they've been injured in a way that they can't do physical work."

    BC comments on the series of concerts to raise awareness of the Landmine Treaty

    Tomorrow night's sold-out National Arts Centre show is significant, because it seems appropriate to everybody that we try to play in Ottawa on the (third) anniversary of the Treaty's signing.
    [editor's note: The 1997 Ottawa Treaty sparked an international landmine-ban campaign, which garnered high-profile awareness from the late Princess Diana, as well as concerts spearheaded by Premier Harris.]

    "The main focus of the efforts of Campaign for a Landmine Free World, with respect to these concerts, is to get people in the States to notice and subsequently getting them to sign."

    "Greater awareness is better, because any support that people can give to agencies working to alleviate the problem is welcome. And needed."
    -- from the Ottawa Sun, Ian Nathanson, December, 2000.

  • 4 December 2001 - Commenting on campaigning against landmines after the September 11th events

    "It might be harder, especially in the U.S., to get people to think about banning a weapon when the country is at war," admits Bruce Cockburn, one of the performers. "At the same time, U.S. troops in Afghanistan are going to be exposed to the risk these mines present."

    BC continues:

    "All human beings have an obligation to make the world a better place. Itís sorta like the idea of leaving your campsite better than you found it. Iím involved with many different issues, and landmines seem completely unnecessary. When youíre dealing with the environment, thereís an ambiguous situation that youíre confronted with where youíre balancing the preservation of nature against peopleís jobs. With the landmines, that isnít there. Itís just evil. It has no redeeming social value. Because of that, itís a nonpartisan issue and a bit more winnable."

    "The landmine issue hasnít changed after September 11. All the countries that had a problem before still have it. The solution is as within reach as it was before. The pain of September 11 hasnít gone away, but I think we can ask an audience to consider the larger picture."
    -- "from Bombs Away: Can a Broad-based Anti-Landmine Campaign Work in Wartime America?", Cleveland Free Times, 28 November- 4 December 2001, by Jeff Niesel.

  • 11 December 2001 - Are you still involved with Concerts for a Land Mine Free World?

    "Yes, we start another series in early December [editor's note: 2001 concerts] in Chicago."

    Those concerts seem more relevant now than ever.

    "Americans will see the direct effects of land mine injuries as more ground troops are sent into Afghanistan; one of the most heavily land mined countries in the world--maybe the most. There are tens of millions of land mines in Afghanistan."
    -- from "Ready For "Anything" From Bruce Cockburn", Gavin, 11 December 2001.

  • Help out! To add material to this section, see this page first.

    Issues Index

    This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.