A Day in the HALO Life

During my recent visit to Zimbabwe I had the incredible opportunity to accompany the HALO Trust to its worksite on the Mozambican border, a four hour drive from Harare.  With a team of 150 people, many of them locally-hired deminers, but also a large number of experienced deminers who had cleared mines in Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Falkland Islands and elsewhere.  There is also an all-female section of deminers.  Each month the team works 22 days straight and then has eight days off; almost all of the team lives in one of two camps (some of the locally-hired crew go home, but for the first several cycles even the locally-hired deminers stayed in camp).  The team starts early and works in 30 minute shifts followed by 10 minute breaks to help maintain concentration.

Mine clearance in this part of the country is simplified by the fact that most of the mines were laid in a very regular and predictable pattern as seen below. In 1998 – 2000, Koch MineSafe cleared the Cordon Sanitaire minefields (at the top of the picture) and the two rows of Ploughshares (a directional fragmentation mine placed upon a stake at roughly head height) closest to the Cordan Sanitaire.  That left the reinforcement minefield and the row of Ploughshares closest to the reinforcement minefield.  In the middle of the reinforcement minefield, marked by the solid line with “x”s on it, was a barbed wire fence.  All that remains of the Ploughshares and the barbed wire fence are the stakes in the ground that held the mines and fence posts.  These stakes help HALO determine where the mines are because the mines really do follow the pattern in the diagram.

00, Minefield

HALO found these four mines (the white stakes show the location of cleared mines) in the exact pattern described by the Rhodesian mine layers; when the team finds one mine, they can generally predict the location of the rest.

01, Pattern

Finding the Ploughshares stakes also helps as each Ploughshare was protected by two “keepers,” anti-personnel mines that prevented tampering with the Ploughshares.  Through fires and animal accidents, all of the Ploughshares have been detonated but many of the stakes remain.

02, Stake

However, the stakes can also serve as good digging tools and many have been collected from the minefields despite repeated warnings about the risk:

03, Stake

Despite the relatively good conditions for landmine clearance, a lot of work is needed because most remain buried and covered by underbrush.  A few mines have been found on the surface, like this one, but they are rare.

04, mine

The work day starts very early with a morning reveille and parade to go over issues and remind everyone to take care.  The day I arrived a deminer had been bitten by a snake so the next day’s reveille was an opportunity to tell the team that he was fine and would be returning to work soon.

05, Reveille

As soon as the light is good for working, the team is in the field to be able to end the work day before the heat of the mid and late afternoon.  To get from the camp to the work sites, the teams travel in vehicles that had been acquired from a German safari company:

06, Heading out

In the field, the deminers mark out their work areas using red stakes and string.  Some work horizontally (covering several meters of width and less than a meter depth), others work vertically, one square meter at a time.  In this photo, the deminer is sweeping a horizontal work area with a metal detector set to the highest level of sensitivity.  Before he could start the sweep with the mine detector, he first had to clear all of the brush, bushes and trees from the area.

07, Sweeping

When the detector indicates the presence of metal, which could be a mine, shrapnel from a Ploughshare, an old piece of barbed wire or any number of other items, the deminer marks the spot with wooden tab:

08, Marking

For my benefit, the deminer pointed out the red wooden tab:

09, Marking

The wooden tab is then “boxed” in and the deminer preps the ground for digging.

10, Prepping

The deminer then digs out the ground in front of the “box” to a depth of 20 centimeters.  This is the depth required in HALO’s standard operating procedures and corresponds to the maximum depths at which HALO has found buried mines in this area.

11, Digging

In areas with lots of metal contamination (like where a Ploughshare exploded and the shrapnel has spread out), the deminer may need to fully excavate the work area because the metal detectors cannot identify a single signal.

12, More digging

When a mine is found, the deminer will mark the location using a red area and call over one of the section leaders.  Because of the instability of the South African landmines that the Rhodesians used, section leaders are responsible for “lifting” the mines from the ground.

13, Pointing

The section leader patiently digs the mine out of the ground.  Here’s one showing off his work:

14, Cleared

All cleared mines are then collected in a safe location for destruction later in the day.

15, Collected

Once a mine is cleared, HALO places a white stake where the mine was found.  Each white stake lists the date the mine was cleared, the type of mine found and the depth of the mine below the surface.

16, Staked

When the deminer declares an area cleared of metal, the section leader will re-scan the area with a metal detector.  If the deminer has missed any metal, the deminer receives a warning.  Too many warnings and the deminer is dismissed.

17, Checking

At the end of each work day, all of the mines cleared that day are destroyed.  The HALO Trust does not have approval from the Zimbabwean government to import or use explosives for demolition so it burns each mine.  Each mine is placed in a metal box filled with flammable material, in this case sawdust soaked in flammable liquid.

18, Burning

Section leaders ignite all of the mines at once.  Eight were burned on the afternoon I was there.

19, BurningIn the course of the burning, the explosive material burns away but the detonator still explodes in a somewhat unsatisfying flash and puff of smoke:

20, Burning21, PuffAfter the mines are destroyed, the teams pile back into the safari vehicles and head back to camp.

22, Heading back

At camp, the deminers get some lunch and relax.  A television was brought in for the 2014 World Cup and while I was there the teams watched highlights from Copa America football tournament in Chile.

23, Back in Camp

All in a day’s (very good) work.

Many thanks to Tom Dibb and the entire team at HALO-Zimbabwe for letting me tag along. To learn more about HALO’s work in Zimbabwe, please visit their website.

Michael P. Moore

July 20, 2015

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org

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