Invisible Coal Seam Fires Leave Hwange Children With Charred Limps, Shattered

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By James Muonwa


OBEDIENT Dube (21) still feels the great pain he suffered when, as a 13-year-old boy, he stepped on a heap of hidden coal fire left behind by a mining company in Hwange.

He suffered third degree burns which left him hospitalised for three months and with lifetime scars that have since then reminded him of the horrifying incident.

He is one of the many Hwange children who have seen their dreams going to waste after being exposed to invisible seam fires which mining companies leave behind when they move to new claims.

Theirs is a story seldom told, if at all. At least until now.

The most topical stories about coal relate to issues of climate change and global warming, but outside of that, there is a heart-breaking story of an immediate human cost of coal mining.

The fires, which can as well be categorised as landmines, are a result of neglected coal dumps which, unfenced and without any sign posting, have left many children with charred limps.

This was exposed in a report by the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) released this week.

According to the report, mining companies are abrogating their duty to put in place measures that protect and safeguard children from physical danger of this phenomenon, where coal is ignited by human activity, usually in the process of coal mining or waste removal.

These fires can burn underground undetected for decades but may occasionally emerge on the surface with severe effects on flora and fauna, according to the report, which also reveals how cases of children being burnt in coal seam fires in Hwange are on the rise, with the latest victim being an eight-year-old girl who plunged into smouldering coal just two weeks ago.

“The latest victim of coal seam fires is an eight-year-old Makwika village girl doing Grade one at a local school in Hwange. The child met the tragic fate on the evening of the 8th of November 2021. As she was walking to relieve herself at a nearby bush the ground gave in and she landed on burning coal,” the report reads.

The girl, whose pictures are too graphic to share, is now fighting for her life and. Her story assumes the usual trend of underprivileged Zimbabwean children who suffer similar ordeals.

Her family, too poor to afford the complex medical procedures required to save her, is now appealing for financial assistance. With the responsible company now nowhere in sight, the family is banking on well-wishers’ support.

“The child was in the company of her aunt who quickly rescued her, but not before she was severely injured. She was burnt from the feet up to the chest and from the graphic pictures, pieces of flesh were falling off. The child was immediately admitted to Hwange Colliery Company Limited hospital before being moved to St Patrick’s Hospital in Hwange. Residents are currently pulling resources together to assist the girl’s family to move her to a referral hospital in Bulawayo,” the report reads.

Before that, a similar tragedy befell a six-year-old boy as he walked around the Madumabisa residential area.

“On the 11th of September 2021, a six-year-old child landed on burning coal after the ground gave in while he was walking from Madumabisa village to Number 2 area in the Colliery. The child, who cannot not be named for ethical reasons, was in the company of his grandmother when tragedy struck,” the report says.

The burns sustained by the minor were so severe that doctors had to graft some tissue to perform reconstructive surgery on the injured feet. He was admitted in hospital for two months and is currently visiting the hospital regularly for wound dressing.

Obedient Dube’s story is almost similar.

He was bird-hunting in a forest with three of his peers during the 2016 August

school holidays. He had moved from Madumabisa compound in Hwange Colliery trekking birds to the coal ash dump sites near a residential area.

“While at Area A residential site, the top surface suddenly gave in partly swallowing young Dube to knee level and exposing him to burning

underground coal seam fire. Obedient, now 21, was burnt on both feet as he

frantically moved them up and down hoping to escape from the red-hot coal ash. He was admitted at Hwange Colliery Hospital for more than three

months and had to write his Grade 7 examinations from the hospital bed. Although he was injured eight years ago, Obedient still feels the pain on his

left foot and the hallux has been moving backwards as the muscle tightens, presumably to heal the internal injuries. The shift in his hallux, he says, is

making it increasingly difficult for him to walk,” the report says.

CNRG also highlighted the tally of the affected population includes adults injured in childhood.

Added the report: “Some of the victims who are now adults were injured whilst young and had their future ruined by the permanent injuries, lengthy periods spent in hospitals and unending excruciating pain that has become a permanent experience in their lives, largely due to inadequate therapy they received.”

The natural resource watchdog is calling on government and mining stakeholders in Hwange to reduce risks and end the fire incidences.

“It is, therefore, important for mining companies to put in place policies that protect and safeguard children from physical danger. Dangerous sites must be properly secured to ensure children do not gain access. In places with underground fires such as Hwange, the company and the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) have a duty to keep watch over these fires and warn the community accordingly,” CNRG said.

“Companies that dig and leave open pits must be heavily fined and banned from operating as they pose risks to unsuspecting children,” it said.

To curb incidences, CNRG proposed the ministry of Health and Child Care to conduct periodic inspections on the safety and wellbeing of children in mining zones and make policy recommendations to the government for tightening of laws to ensure children do not fall victim to mining hazards.

The study showed that children were most susceptible to these fires as they usually play on grounds close to the mine dumps or run-on grounds that have underground fires, unaware of the danger.

“The areas with the underground fires are not secured and some of the fires are invisible such that children can easily walk over the ground. Equally, adults have fallen victim to these underground fires as they pursue their day-to-day livelihood activities in and around the mine,” the report further says.

“Both the families and the children need psycho-social support to overcome the trauma they now live with.”

According to Global Forest Watch, underground coal seam fires cause extreme ground heat and instability, destroying roads and homes, as well as creating fiery sinkholes that swallow anything from cars to people.

Underground coal seam fires are prevalent in Hwange, throughout the concession owned by Hwange Colliery Company Limited (HCCL), where houses for mine workers are also located.



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