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Landmine victims star in Angola pageant

  • Story Highlights
  • Pageant goal is to restore pride to women who lost limbs to Angola's landmines
  • Organizers also want to raise awareness about danger of buried landmines
  • Winner gets a new prosthetic limb; all contestants will get government help
  • Thousands of Angolans have been maimed by landmines during 27-year civil war
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By Saeed Ahmed
CNN
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(CNN) -- The glamour shots capture them in fashion-model poses -- sprawled on a couch or lounging by the pool, smiling and sensuous.

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Filomena Domingos da Costa, from left, Anita Pedro and Maria Restino Manuel are competing for the unusual title.

But these women aren't typical pageant contestants: Each lost a limb after stepping on a landmine in their native Angola.

On Wednesday, they compete for the unusual title of Miss Landmine Angola 2008.

Organizers say they want the pageant to restore the women's pride and raise awareness about the prevalence of landmines left over from Angola's three decade-long civil war. Undetonated mines still maim 300 to 400 people a year in the county, according to the United Nations.

"I'm completely enthusiastic about participating," said one of the contestants, 25-year-old Paulina Vadi. "I think that it will give society a wake-up call to be more attentive to disabled people in general."

Vadi was a fourth-grader when she went to a field to gather fruit. A sudden military attack sent her running for cover. She stepped on a Russian-made mine and lost her right leg.

That was 11 years ago.

Now Vadi lives with her mother and three school-aged children. She works as a street vendor, selling beer and soda. She said she entered the pageant because she wants to be able to return to school.

The contestants represent Angola's various provinces and range in age from 19 to 33.

Their profiles list not only their ages and favorite colors but also when they were injured and what kind of mine claimed their limbs. Most were maimed while tending fields, and they are now unemployed.

Vadi's photograph has her reclined atop a safe, a tiara on her head and a stack of cash in her left hand. Her sash reads, "Huila," the province she is representing.

All the contestants will receive governmental help to go back to school or to start a small business. The winner gets a new prosthetic limb.

Angolan organizers expect to crown two winners Wednesday: one picked by a panel of a dozen officials from the Angolan government and foreign embassies, the other through an online poll.

So far, organizers said, close to 9,000 viewers from about 30 countries have voted for their favorite participant on the Web site, www.miss-landmine.org.

Pageants for contestants who face physical challenges are nothing new.

The United States has Ms. Wheelchair America. And contestants from around the globe compete each year in Miss Deaf World.

The Angolan pageant -- with its motto of "Everyone has a right to be beautiful" -- focuses on a problem that is particularly severe in that country.

Thousands of Angolans have been maimed by mines buried during a bloody 27-year civil war. The war began shortly after the country's independence from Portugal in 1975 and ended six years ago, killing 1.5 million people.

Warring sides buried millions of landmines to depopulate areas, slow the movement of opposing forces and defend towns, bridges and power lines.

Despite an extensive de-mining program since the end of the war, Angola remains one of the most mined countries in Africa.

The mines are so prevalent that their legacy was immediately obvious when Norwegian artist Morten Traavik first visited the southern African nation in 2003, a year after the war ended.

"The whole country was littered with landmines left over from the conflict," Traavik said. "You virtually couldn't move anywhere because most of the country wasn't even surveyed for landmines, let alone cleared."

While there, Traavik judged a neighborhood beauty contest in the capital of Luanda -- and got the idea for the landmine pageant.

Finding money for it proved difficult. Traavik said several nongovernmental organizations turned him down, with one labeling his idea a "freak show."

"That says more about your own attitudes toward the disabled people -- and how you think Africans are supposed to be and look like -- than it does our project," he said.

Soon after, Traavik won the blessing of the Angolan government. And he eventually was able to change the minds of people who were initially reluctant, said Becky Thomson, mine action program manager for the nongovernmental group Norwegian People's Aid.

"I think one of the reasons quite a few of us changed our initial reservations and are seeing it in a different light is very much linked to the fact that when you see the photographs, you see that the women are profiled with dignity," Thomson said. "That is really important."

Indeed, dignity is what spurred several of the women to participate.

Contestant Ana Diogo is a 32-year-old widowed mother of three who lost her leg to an Italian-made mine in 1984.

Diogo is unemployed, selling tomatoes on the streets when she can find any. She said she hopes the pageant will give her a chance at a better life.

Her dream job? "Anything," she said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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