While we were working in Angola some years ago, we had friends who worked with the Halo Trust clearing landmines all over Angola. At that time (2006) there were estimated to be about 17 million of the horrible things lurking in the ground.
We were invited to visit them at their upcountry headquarters in a small town called Huambo, which had suffered very badly during the civil war, so was full of shot up buildings, burnt out tanks in back yards and all the remains of a vicious war, which after a bit of time in Angola, we were becoming all too familiar with sadly.
They decided to first take us to a large minefield that they were busy clearing on the edge of a small village nearby, so off we went to see our first minefield in the flesh as it were. When we got there we were taken to the edge of the village, where the local school had its playground and the guy in charge pointed to the grass field beside the kid’s playground and told us matter of factly that that was the minefield. Simply a large area of grass beside the beaten earth of the playground… No form of separation, walls, fences, ditches.. nothing, simply an innocent looking grassy area.
This was when we understood that actually a minefield is simply a chunk of land which happens to have landmines buried in it…. In no way special or dangerous looking. As a friend from the Halo Trust put it, a landmine is the Beast that doesn’t bark – but sure as hell can and does bite!
The thing that got me at that moment was the realisation that the kids at the school played football and ran around as kids do, right on the edge of a minefield, with no form of barrier to prevent them running into the minefield.
We were then given a sort of talk about the way in which landmines work, and the philosophy behind them – Put simply, the intention is that they should maim, not kill. A wounded soldier is a nuisance, needs looking after, and dealing with, and is bad for moral too – a man screaming in agony with his leg blown off is worse than a dead soldier. So they are not intended to kill, simply to maim… So in fact most landmines are actually very small, about the size of a cigar box – which they actually resemble as they tend to be made of wood as well.
After having had the pep talk, we were then taken into the minefield, walking along a cleared track through the minefield demarcated with plastic warning tape. A very weird feeling walking along a meter wide path in what seems to be a perfectly normal grass field, knowing that should we be foolish enough to step outside the two lines of tape, we had a good chance of blowing our legs off….
Deep in the minefield our guide pointed out a skull and a small pile of bones about 30 meters from our track, telling us that this was the body of a villager who had wandered into the minefield one day, trod on a mine, blown his legs off, and laid there slowly dying, screaming the while, but no one in the village dared to go to help him.. This is one of the dreadful aspects of landmines.
We then watched the slow and painstaking process of clearing the mines… Basically a guy kneels down just outside the minefield, digs a small hole with a garden trowel and then proceeds to turn this hole into a trench about a foot wide and 18 inches deep in a straight line into the field, digging always from below, so he comes across any landmines from below, not above – for obvious reasons.
A whole team of guys do this, side by side, and whenever a mine is found, it is carefully removed and taken away to be blown up in a special pit later.
This slow process is the only sure way of clearing minefields apparently. Using mine detectors hardly works as most mines are made of wood, scraping off the top layer of soil, which is done sometimes, risks leaving detonators in the soil, so not guaranteed to clear the mines fully, and apparently using specially trained animals is also far from certain for a number of reasons… So slow, methodical handwork seems the only way.
Even if you have a map of where the mines were laid, this is not really a help, since things that are buried seem to move around (ever buried a dead bird and then gone back a few months later to look for its bones? They are never there are they?).
Anyhow, after that visit, we visited a number of other minefields, and always found it a very strange experience, not one that you can ever get used to I think..