The issue of landmines in ex-warzones

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

Aubrey feels very strongly about the issue of landmines in ex-warzones throughout the world, and wrote The Cinnamon Tree to help focus attention on this issue.


The Cinnamon Tree is a novel set in Africa. When Yola steps on a landmine, her little cousin Gabbin saves her life, but otherwise her future is bleak. Who will pay a bride-price for a girl with only one leg, who cannot work or carry loads, and who cannot even get to school? Soon, trouble with one of her three mothers, makes life intolerable. Befriended by Hans, leader of a demining team, she comes to Ireland to be fitted with a new leg. Here she meets Fintan whose father has a business project in Africa.

Back in Africa, she is given a job with Hans's demining group teaching mines awareness and learning as much as she can about demining. When Fintan turns up unexpectedly in Yola's home town, they realise they are involved in an international arms deal in which Fintan's father is implicated. As Yola prepares for her final test - to rescue her little cousin Gabbin, who has been taken as a child soldier - only Sailor, a dog trained to sniff out landmines, can show them the way.


There is a cinnamon tree, and there was a landmine under it. I could see the rim of it sticking out through the red earth before Vincent, an Angolan deminer, sent me away so that he could lift it and make it safe.

In 1998 I travelled to Angola, inspired by Princess Diana, who had chosen to wake the world to the evil of landmines by visiting this, the landmines capital of the world. I wanted to write this book, but first I needed to meet the victims, and see how landmines were being found and dealt with. Angola has been at war for thirty-eight years, first a war of independence from Portugal, and after that twenty-four years of civil war. During this time ten million landmines have been laid there, most of which are still in the ground. Over 70,000 people have lost their limbs, and many, particularly children, have died.

But Kasemba is not Angola. You will not find it on the map of Africa, nor will you find a Yola or a Gabbin quite as I describe them. Nevertheless, much of what I have told in The Cinnamon Tree is real.

While I was in Angola I was looked after by a wonderful organisation called Norwegian People's Aid. In The Cinnamon Tree, when Yola travels from Nopani to Simbada, I am describing a trip very like my own to Luanda, the capital of Angola, to Lobito where Norwegian People's Aid have their field-station. It was there that I saw dogs being trained to sniff out mines. I watched a beautiful German Shepherd, looping left and right just as Sailor did for Yola on her night-time expedition, his tail waving with excitement. Then he sank to the ground, his Angolan handler marked the spot, and a supervisor came with a spade and carefully dug up a large practice mine.

Later, I was taken to the little town of Gabela where I saw a live mine clearance in operation. There was a hill, and a Russian tank just like the one Gabbin was playing in when he lost Managu the bull, but there were no boys near the tank while I was there. Discipline was tight. The Angolan deminers worked in pairs, each pair fifty metres apart in case of accidents. Only a week before, a deminer had been injured when he accidentally pulled a trip-wire attached to a hand-grenade in the bushes. Vincent, the supervisor, showed me a stake marking the place where they had recently found a landmine. Beside the spot was a bent stick with a piece of string attached. It was a bird trap, set by a local boy while the mine was still in the ground. When he knelt to set his trap he was only centimetres away from the mine. Later that day Vincent called me over to look at a mine they had uncovered under a tree. He pointed out how it had been put there so that anyone trying to climb the tree would step on it, a soldier or a sniper perhaps, or even a girl like Yola. He took his knife out and broke off a piece of the bark, smiling as he asked me to smell it. Yes, the smell was cinnamon.

For Yola's family-life I turned to the people that I had lived among for a year on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. Here important men, like Yola's father, often had several wives. By giving a good bride-price for a new young bride, the wealthy man could help a neighbour and, at the same time, get welcome help for his senior wife. Often this worked well, even for the young bride. She moved, perhaps from being a drudge at home, to being the wife of an important man with both status and security. If there were problems it was Senior Mother who kept the peace. In Africa, age and wisdom are respected. Any man of importance is expected to show wisdom and judgement. Father, with his almost telepathic understanding of people, is a portrait of a wise Kenyan I knew.

How is it then that wise and gentle people find themselves locked in war? One of the reasons is that unscrupulous people make money out of selling arms. In The Cinnamon Tree Mr Birthistle represents the underbelly of the arms trade, people who sell guns and ammunition to anyone who is prepared to pay for them. But arms dealers are not the only offenders. Both governments and arms manufacturers make the money to develop their Star Wars weapons by selling armaments. We are revolted at the thought of germ warfare but rifles, like germs, spread the disease of war.

Some guns are now so light that children can handle them. Gabbin, at age eleven, could easily strip, clean and fire a Kalashnikov rifle. It looks like a toy, and weighs only 4.3 kilos, but yet it is capable of firing 600 bullets a minute.

Every day children in war-torn countries are taken from their families and taught to fight. There is nothing romantic about this. Children are often given a choice: kill your own parents, or you'll be killed yourself. If they do this they are so devastated by guilt and grief that they can be made to believe or do anything. Crazed children, persuaded that they are invincible, are forced to lead attacks or to walk through minefields.

The Cinnamon Tree is about courage and happiness. If you would like to learn more, or do something about some of the issues raised in this book, these websites will give you accurate information:

  1. 1. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines is a network of organisations working for a Global Ban on Landmines. I was shown landmine clearance in Angola by Norwegian People's Aid; similar work is being done by MAG who are based in Manchester in the UK. Both clear and destroy landsmines and other unexploded weapons as well as assisting the victims.
  2. 2. You might be interested in raising money for mine clearance. Adopt-A-Minefield is a wonderful scheme where large and small donations are collected to clear specific minefields. You can find out about the minefield you have adopted, see how the clearance is going, and how the people who were affected are getting back to normal lives
  3. 3. Perhaps you are interested in campaigning against the use of children as child soldiers. There are as many as 300, 000 children under the age of 18 serving in government forces or armed rebel groups. Some are as young as 8 years old. You can learn about these from Human Rights Watch The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers works to prevent the use of children as soldiers. In my story Gabbin is lucky because he has a family to go back to. Most child soldiers find that nobody wants them when they give up their guns.
  4. 4. There is a very important campaign starting now to stop countries manufacturing arms and selling them to just anyone who will buy them. You can find out about The Campaign Against The Arms Trade at
Aubrey Flegg