There’s no such thing as an easy demining job, says Steve Saffin, head of operations at The Development Initiative, which provides land mine and unexploded ordnance clearance worldwide with current projects in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia.
Yet, working in Somalia through a contract with the United Nations presented its own challenges, as the nearby presence of the militant group al-Shabab is a constant concern which sometimes materializes into alerts that cause demining teams to reorient their plans.
“We are not politically motivated, we are here with a humanitarian purpose,” Saffin said in a recent phone interview from Harare, Zimbabwe.
All the same, TDI, operating since 2005, maintains a clean casualty record — none of its employees and deminers, the vast majority of whom are locals, have been injured or killed on the job.
It’s no small feat for the relatively small company, which has also worked in the hot spots of Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Kuwait,.
Yet dangerous work is also an inherent part of the business in the clearance of land mines and unexploded ordnance, also known as UXOs.
A total new 4,286 new casualties from land mines and explosive remnants of war were recorded in 2011, about 11 or 12 casualties a day on average, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The numbers are similar to those for 2009 and 2010. Yet it is estimated that these figures do not represent the full extent of the problem, bound to both dated wars and to ongoing conflicts. The governments of Syria, Israel, Libya and Myanmar as well as six nonstate armed groups in Yemen, Thailand, Afghanistan, Colombia and Pakistan have all reportedly used antipersonnel mines since 2011.
In South Sudan, where TDI has a project providing 8 multitasking teams working throughout the country for the United Nations, “it is possible to find land mines that date back to the 1970s or 1980s, when Sudan waged two civil wars,” Saffin said.
Others are dated more recently, discarded haphazardly by rebel groups.
Typically, TDI’s first motions on the ground in a new zone involves coordinating with local military authorities.
“We want to look at what fighting may have taken place in this area, if a group had a base here, how many years ago there was an attack,” Saffin explained.
Then, TDI staff will try to talk to as many local people as possible to build a picture of where the real threat of land mines and UXO could lie. It’s the local people, like the shepherds and the truck drivers, who can ultimately provide telling advice and clues, like not to drive down that road because of an unexplained explosion that had occurred there.
“Establishing local ties with the community is key to a successful project, which can run anywhere from two to three months to several years depending on the scope of the project,” said Saffin.
Most of the locally trained deminers, drivers, medics and other personnel TDI employs are men, but in Somalia, where TDI now has four manual clearance teams, four explosive ordinance disposal teams and four mine risk education teams, women compose about 25 percent of local staff.
The work gives some local people an opportunity for steady employment, ownership over the work, and in particular cases, an entry into formal education. In Somalia, a group of deminers had never been taught how to use a ruler and prior to training with TDI, had never seen one — yet all of them had cell phones and made international calls to friends abroad with ease. TDI’s international team, composed mostly of African nationals, incorporated the lesson into their training without difficulty, according to Saffin.
The specialized technical and physical work is not always as glamorous as the idea of it might imply, said Saffin, who spends hands-on time on every TDI project in the field.
“About 5 percent of the time the work is brilliant and then 95 percent of the time it is not as exciting as people think — it is finding coke cans and the odd nail,” Saffin said. “Yet therein lies the danger, because as soon as you switch off, that is when an accident can happen.”
TDI is exploring work in other parts of the world, where antipersonnel mines and UXOs will continue to affect civilians long after civil conflict draws to a close.
Find out more about The Development Initiative mission and work around the globe.