Roberto slammed on the brakes, pushing the Land Rover into a skid. I grabbed the safety bar and my thoughts drifted to the bright orange shoes I had begged my mother to buy me when I turned seven.
My mother, so worried about my Africa trip.
“We’re lost,” the park ranger whispered, hysteria edging into his voice.
I was a newspaper correspondent reporting on Mozambique and we had been assessing the damage caused by 16 years of unrelenting civil war to Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique’s pre-war pride.
Around us, every tree seemed the same – tall, thick, gnarled. Looking back, the writer in me imagines a slow panic climbing up my throat, its oily fingers squeezing my intestines, alternately cooling and melting. I remember the smell of my own terror, unaware until then that terror had a smell. I was unprepared for the scorching sensation in my chest and the raw, acid taste in my mouth.
I thought back to the bent and rusted metal hulks we had passed along the way, clear evidence of what happens when even the largest vehicle meet a landmine. One false move or a bit of bad luck and we’d be twisted too.
A hunched palm stood in the distance and we inched towards it, in the peculiar belief that the slower we drove the better our chances. Wrong palm.
There, over to the left! That was our palm.
Except no, it was just a lookalike.
This spot-and-follow game lasted 20 minutes that felt like a year as we drove in circles and in silence, expecting at any second to be lifted high off the ground before crashing back as charred flesh and melted metal. Not that I’d ever feel a thing.
Finally we saw it, beneath us, a faint strip of packed dirt, overgrown and nearly invisible.
Roberto broke into wet hiccups, a sound somewhere between a sob and a giggle. I tumbled out of the car and crumbled to my knees, throwing up on the parched earth, wiping myself with a grimy sleeve.
“You know, it’s all part of the job,” rallied Roberto, his voice still shrill from the shock. “If we always worried about landmines, we wouldn’t go anywhere, would we?”
His retroactive bravado failed to fool me.
He had already laid out his terror, every bit as hollowing as mine. His knuckles were still white from the steering wheel. My own hands shook so violently I smeared sweat into my eyes, making myself cry. I forced myself to breathe because my lungs all of a sudden seemed to have forgotten how.
As we drove back to base, we crossed dry – and likely mined – riverbeds; most bridges had been blown up in the brutal civil war that ripped up Mozambique from 1977 to 1992.
On one side of the conflict was the stridently Marxist Frelimo, which had fought off the Portuguese colonial regime and achieved independence, in the process becoming the country’s new government. Fighting the ‘Communist threat’ was the opposition right-wing Renamo, created by what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and for years funded by South Africa. Much fighting had taken place inside the park and most wildlife had been murdered; elephants were butchered for their ivory, which helped finance warfare on both sides.
As we searched for signs of poaching, Roberto maneuvered the car onto the rotting wood planks that straddled the occasional crater or bomb pit, yawing dangerously as we slid across.
The grass was high, swishing in the wind. The rains had started early, and I could easily imagine guerrilla fighters crouched behind the tall wet grasses, waiting to ambush a convoy or transport similar to ours.
As the rain intensified, the track became muddier, threatening to lose itself again. When it rains, landmines are pushed to the top and can ‘travel’, deposited a distance from where they were originally laid. We were safe nowhere.
We drove tensely, in silence. My stomach and chest were tight as a toned six-pack and I exhaled in tiny spurts. It would be too stupid to die now, after finding our track and cheating the first round of death. I tried to look brave, thinking I could go in dignity or at least pretend to.
We reached camp unscathed and I did the only thing my body could still do. I threw up again.
Mozambique’s landmines have now been cleared by the incredibly courageous individuals who put their lives on the line to make land safe for others. Worldwide there are more than 110 million landmines still in use, and another 250 million stockpiled. They are brutal and inhumane killers, designed only to maim and terrorize. What kind of human being does that?
For more information on landmines, visit the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.