by Mary Boland
Driving through Mozambique’s beautiful and mountainous western province of Manica, it’s easy to imagine the setting as an ideal base for rebel fighters: its lush forests offer many hiding places, its mountain roads, difficult to negotiate, are potentially wide open to ambush attacks. Little wonder, then, that many of the crucial battles of this country’s two vicious and devastating wars took place here: the 1964-1974 war of independence between Portugal’s colonial forces and the Marxist Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo), and the 1977-1992 civil war between Frelimo government forces and Renamo fighters. I’m here to witness the lasting effects of both of those conflicts, and to see how efforts to rid the country of one of the deadliest vestiges of war are finally bearing fruit: Mozambique is about to declare itself landmine-free, thanks to a major clearance effort launched in 1993 by the United Nations and international NGOs, among them the Halo Trust and Apopo, a Belgian NGO that uses rats to detect the mines. After a heavy shower just after dawn in the village of Dombe in Sussundenga district of Manica province, Mourinho, Jeremia, Philipo and Richard are already hard at work. They scamper across the landscape, straining excitedly out of their tiny harnesses, sniffing and scratching the dusty earth, noses puckering, big ears twitching, and long black whiskers rippling while their supervisors observe and take notes of his behaviour. A quick sniff is not so significant; a prolonged bout of scratching in the soil – especially if one of his team-mates later behaves the same way in the same spot – usually indicates that explosives lie beneath.
Mourinho and his colleagues are African giant pouched rats tasked with sniffing out the TNT of landmines in this incongruously idyllic setting on the edge of Chimanimani National Reserve, a vast forested area on the Zimbabwean border that boasts spectacular waterfalls and the imposing Monte Binga, Mozambique’s highest peak. It was here last November, on a sleepy plain bordered by cornfields, that 18-year-old newlywed Verginia Mateus lost a leg after stepping on a landmine while making bricks to build a house. “This is why we’re here. After the accident we came to check and clear the area so that the people can get back to farming and other normal activities, and have confidence that they are safe,” explains Januario Bape, a team leader with Apopo, which breeds and trains the rats – they’re about the size of a small domestic cat – in neighbouring Tanzania. The rats are taught to associate the smell of TNT with a clicking sound and a food reward. One of the handlers, Victor Boquico, demonstrates the technique with “Mocadas 53” (the rats are named by their trainers in Tanzania): as soon as Mocadas scratches the ground to indicate he has sniffed TNT and then hears the click, he dashes over to Victor, stands on his hind legs and grabs the proffered half-banana in his tiny paws, his cheeks puffing as he stuffs the fruit with cartoon-like speed between long, tapping teeth.
Since 2008, Apopo’s mine-detection rats, along with their human “handlers” and manual demining teams, have helped reclaim more than 11 million sq m (1,100 hectares) of land for Mozambican communities, and destroyed more than 13,200 landmines and 1,100 bombs. The mines the rats uncover are later checked and safely disposed of by their human colleagues. The idea of using rats for demining came to Apopo founder Bart Weetjens 20 years ago when he read about gerbils being trained to identify the scent of explosives. The Cricetomys’s exceptional olfactory skills, intelligence, low weight and wide availability convinced Weetjens the rodents could make a major contribution to development efforts. Living happily on a diet of avocados, bananas, tomatoes, peanuts and apples, the rats, who live for seven to eight years, are also far cheaper to maintain, and to train. It costs about €6,000 to train a mine-detection rat compared to the €23,200 ($25,000) the US-based Marshall Legacy Institute invests in training a dog to do the same job. “It makes me feel proud that, because of this work, people can move freely and live their lives,” says Sartina Chivambo from the southern province of Gaza, one of some 25 women deminers working for Apopo in Mozambique. “All of these jobs were done before by men,” she says, raising the protective shield of her helmet as she finishes up for the day. “This really shows that women can do anything that men do.” As the Mozambique project comes to an end, Apopo’s rats are already detecting mines in Angola, and there are plans to send them soon to Cambodia. Apopo.org @HeroRATs