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The World at Work

A Job That Concentrates the Mind Wonderfully

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 6, 2004; Page A20

As Antonio Cambanda dug into the dry, red dirt before him, he had the look of an unusually intense and wary gardener. He clipped weeds, softened the soil with water and then, with a short-handled shovel, delicately scraped his way forward.

He was searching not for bulbs but for land mines. After four decades of nearly continuous war, an estimated 500,000 mines remain sown in Angolan soil, still waiting to detonate with an unlucky step, as if the fighting here had not ended in 2002.

Antonio Cambanda, who clears land mines for a living, uses a short-handled shovel on the job in San Antonio, Angola. (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

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Most Angolans try to keep their distance from mines. But for $163 a month, or about $7 each workday, Cambanda seeks them out, inch by perilous inch. His is one of the few readily available jobs in a postwar economy that employs fewer than half of Angolan adults.

"I'm not just here making money," said Cambanda, 30, a slim, serious man who is married, has two children and dreams of becoming an engineer. "I'm also saving lives."

His gear is minimal: a shovel about the length of his forearm, a second one the size of a beach toy, a black water bucket, pruning shears and two sticks to measure the width and depth of the shallow trenches he digs in the minefield.

For protection, he wears Kevlar body armor over a blue jumpsuit and a clear plastic shield to safeguard his face. His hands, which come closest to the mines themselves, are covered in nothing more than white cotton gloves.

Most of the mines here were supplied by Cuba, remnants of the support given by that country to the Angolan government -- then avowedly communist -- in one of the Cold War's longest and least-noticed proxy conflicts. The Cubans laid the first mines in this field in 1980, when they had a military base here, according to the Halo Trust, an aid group based in Scotland that employs Cambanda and 530 others doing similar work in Angola.

The Angolan military added more mines to this field in 1988 and 1992, according to the trust.

Even small land mines contain enough explosives to kill or maim. The Angolan government says 700 people were killed and 2,300 injured in land-mine accidents over the past six years. Aid groups say the numbers are higher.

Most of the victims are men, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. In towns and villages throughout central Angola, it is common to see men hobbling on crutches, their pant legs empty below one knee.

Workers such as Cambanda employ a rigorous technique to find the land mines without detonating them. The pressure plate that triggers a mine is on top of the device. Hitting a mine from the side or from below poses little danger, unless it has been dislodged, perhaps by unusually heavy rains, from its original position.

Cambanda never digs downward. He squats on a patch of soil already cleared of mines and leans forward, scraping the wall of a shallow trench in front of him. With each pass of the shovel, he moves gradually forward.

About an hour into his work on a recent day, Cambanda's shovel hit a piece of plastic with a thud so soft that he could only feel it, not hear it. It was different, he said later, than the sharp clink of a rock. Cambanda stood up and gestured for a supervisor to examine it.

It turned out to be not a mine but the melted remnant of one that had been burned -- and most likely detonated -- during a brush fire set by villagers to chase off snakes, Halo Trust workers said.

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