Wage War on Minefields
by Martin Revis
A battle to eliminate the death and misery caused to civilians by millions of obsolete land mines is being waged in five countries from an unassuming London building overlooking the River Thames.
The HALO Trust, which last year cleared around 10,000 mines and 25,000 tonnes of unexploded shells, is looking for fresh projects in Bosnia, Croatia, and Georgia to add to those in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique and Nagorno Karabakh.
Order Of Chivalry
In place of the old war-hardened knights who kept the roads clear for pilgrims bound for Jerusalem, there would be teams of mine clearers - de-miners - opening up roads, agricultural land and towns for returning refugees to rebuild their lives.
"I thought their eyes would mist over with tears or laughter," confesses Mr. Mitchell, a former Member of Parliament, Parliamentary Private Secretary and British Army Colonel, "But in fact both accepted that it was quite a good concept."
The trio - ex-Coldstream Guards officer Mr. Willoughby is based in Scotland - are solely responsible for directing operations, fund raising and monitoring their effectiveness.
Mrs. Mitchell also organises the medical programme in which volunteer surgeons from Britain have been recruited to treat thousands of victims. On earlier visits to Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Zimbabwe, Mr. Mitchell had seen the urgent need for someone to instruct local people on how to get rid of the debris of war.
Organisations campaigning for the banning of mines suggest that up to 100 million laid in the fields, villages and on the footpaths of developing countries are claiming 500 victims - subsistence farmers, women and children - every week. The mines explode at the merest pressure and are designed not to kill but to maim soldiers in war, thus slowing down an advance by using up the enemy's resources to treat casualties.
Mr. Mitchell points out that it is not the total of mines that is important, but the much smaller number, possibly around one million, located where they pose a real threat to civilians trying to rebuild their livelihoods.
His own experience of mine-clearing began as a 19-year-old officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Italy during World War II when his soldiers used bayonets and sticks to probe for less-sensitive anti-tank mines and marked them until they were dealt with.
Over the past eight years 43 HALO staff have been killed or maimed, a sacrifice that has saved many thousands of lives. The organisation is concerned solely with de-activating mines and not the politically sensitive campaign against their manufacture and deployment.
Of all the mines and unexploded shells it has dealt with so far, 85% were Russian-made, 10% were Chinese, 2% were Vietnamese and the remainder almost entirely a mix of American, Portuguese, Romanian, French and Italian origin. Only three British mines - all anti-tank - and more than 40 years old have been dug up.
Once a project has cleared the considerable bureaucratic hurdles of achieving sponsorship and agreement from the country concerned to begin work, a detailed operation plan is devised. Standard operating procedures are translated into local languages, arrangements made to train de-miners locally usually by ex-patriate staff and decisions are taken on priority areas for clearing.
In Angola, where HALO began operations two years ago on an ODA-supported project, de-mining teams have worked in the Benguela-Kuito corridor. This was in response to an Oxfam request to first clear areas of maximum benefit to the community, such as well sites and hospital surrounds, where returning refuges have suffered many casualties.
HALO has encountered its most dangerous work in Afghanistan where the ODA is part-sponsoring work in Kabul and the Shoma Valley. In residential areas of the capital, mines are often buried a metre beneath rubble and vegetation strewn with other metal fragments that confuse the locators.
Nagorno Karabakh presents fewer problems as, unlike Cambodia and Afghanistan, mines were not laid as weapons of terror targeting the civil population, but along well-defined front lines of opposing conventional forces.
Casualties were mounting before HALO began work four years ago at two sites in the Banteay Meanchay and Siem Reap provinces of Cambodia. The programme, funded by ODA and the Irish and Finnish governments, involves six teams of 43 members who have cleared several million square metres of land.
Clearing the dirt roads in Mozambique of relatively few anti-tank mines has led HALO to adopt a labour-intensive technique. Conventional means would be too slow and expensive to locate what might be one anti-tank mine on a 100-km stretch.
Central safe lanes are dug from which "cubes" or "boxes" of road on either side are cleared to a depth of 20 cm by scores of workers using the heads of their hoes horizontally and not vertically. Consequently, mines laid in a conventional manner will be exposed at the side, minimising the risk of accidentally striking pressure plates - the danger which de-miners, who might qualify for another form of halo, face daily.
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