The Deadly Debris Of War

By Dorothy Bryant, Special to the Planet
Thursday January 14, 2010 - 09:31:00 AM
At left, a HALO Afghanistan deminer clears his way up a slope in Guldara district (west of Kabul) in 2006. Now that the slope has been cleared of landmines, residents of the village in the background are using it to graze livestock.
At left, a HALO Afghanistan deminer clears his way up a slope in Guldara district (west of Kabul) in 2006. Now that the slope has been cleared of landmines, residents of the village in the background are using it to graze livestock.

Andrew Lyons is a 40ish, trim, rosy-cheeked man who, though friendly, gives the impression of having no time to waste. Perhaps his manner reflects his role as vice president of HALO USA, the American branch of the global charity, the HALO Trust. HALO is a 21-year-old non-governmental, nonprofit organization with a simple, almost brusquely worded mission: “Getting mines out of the ground, now” 

In 1998, Andrew left his job as financial planner for the University of Chicago in order to spend four years in the Peace Corps in Lithuania and Bosnia, where he was approached by HALO. Would he be interested in helping to manage HALO finances in Angola? He would. “In the Peace Corps we worked on development projects in developing countries—good work, but it’s hard to measure tangible results. HALO could, and did, count the landmines removed, one by one. Each explosive rendered harmless was potentially a life—or at least an arm or a leg—saved.” 

In the late 1990s, England’s Princess Diana brought worldwide attention to the daily death and injury, year after year— 

in rural areas of Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Georgia/Abkhazia, Kosovo, Mozambique, Nagorno Karabakh, Somaliland, and Sri Lanka—caused by the debris of past wars: landmines; large caliber ordnance; ammunition, from shells to bullets; and weapons, from assault rifles to heavy weapons systems. Often children yet unborn when landmines were planted or shells scattered were losing their limbs or their lives in the course of everyday life, on quiet fields and roads surrounding their homes. The attention brought to the ongoing slaughter led to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, resulting in a treaty to stop planting landmines, signed by 156 countries. The ICBL won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Other awards from humanitarian groups in various countries followed. 

“The good news for HALO,” says Andrew, “was a broader awareness of the problem, crossing all political lines. The bad news was that the treaty led many people to conclude that the problem had been solved. They forget that mine clearance means clearing explosives planted 20 years ago, or 30. It’s a quiet, painstaking, dangerous effort that goes on and on, especially in countries that experience successive waves of war.” 

Afghanistan is the prime example of successive mining by different factions: first by Soviet forces and the Mujahideen during the ten-year occupation; then during localized fighting between Mujahideen groups; then again, most recently between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. 

In the HALO office where Andrew filed financial reports, “There was a blackboard on the wall. Marked in chalk were the number of mines cleared from one area and another. Every day a manager would come in, erase a figure, chalk up a higher one—two or three more landmines removed here and here.” Andrew laughs. “A low-tech but dramatic record of progress! How could I resist?” Andrew left his financial spreadsheets to learn the work, literally, on the ground. “Sometimes heavy equipment is used, but often the best, most effective mine-clearing (especially in difficult terrain—jungles or peaks and valleys with poor or no roads) is done by human beings, one by one, in protective gear, using metal detectors, moving inch by inch, clearing sometimes only a few square yards a day.” Also active are trained EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) teams searching fields and villages, removing and destroying other explosives. 

Now the pattern is set: almost every HALO worker, even those in administrative capacities, begins on the ground, part of a demining or EOD team or a survey team that identifies and maps minefields and old battlegrounds. 

As an outsider from a mine-free country, Andrew is in the minority of mine clearer/managers. HALO employs nearly 8,000 deminers in nine countries, some of them women, nearly all of them, including middle management, citizens of the country being cleared of mines. In other words, HALO has created thousands of jobs so that people will not starve before they are able to get safely back to farming—or will not be killed because they are forced to farm on dangerous fields or to dig up scrap metal to sell in order to feed their families. (The safety record of HALO teams is excellent, but HALO medical teams and services are on call at all times.) 

The policy of employing locals and of maintaining a strictly charitable, non-political identity “may be the reason that, so far, we can move pretty safely—through Afghanistan, for instance.” Political neutrality has also helped HALO get funding from 13 governments: Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, UK, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Czech Republic, Belgium, Switzerland, and the United States. Several mine-affected countries also have created their own government programs of demining. Private foundations and donors are a vital source of funds. “Private donors are more important than ever,” says Andrew, “as the world-wide recession cuts back on government and foundation resources.” 

Over the past 21 years HALO has chalked up some impressive numbers: one million landmines destroyed; 6,000 minefields cleared; 10 million large caliber ordnance destroyed; 50 million bullets destroyed; 85,000 assault rifles destroyed; 3,000 heavy weapon systems immobilized; 300,000 acres made safe from landmines or abandoned ordnance; 7,000 miles of roads cleared. 

“In northern Mozambique we finished the job!” declared Andrew. “Every village is free from landmines.” He paused. “Afghanistan will take at least another 10 years, even if all fighting could end right now.” 

I asked Andrew, “Don’t you get discouraged, cleaning up after one war—and here comes another?” He looked at me silently, with an expression that was somewhat puzzled, as if I’d asked a, well, stupid question.  

Then he explained, simply, as to a child, “The people we want to help had nothing to do with starting wars. We can’t just walk away from them.” 

I had one more question: is HALO an acronym for a longer title? 

Andrew nodded: “Hazardous Areas Lifesupport Organization.” I couldn’t resist saying that sounded like the acronym came first and that those words were jammed together to fit it. He nodded again and smiled. “You know, when the deminers finish a day’s work and start for home, they sling the rod of the mine detector over their shoulders and walk away. From a distance the mine detector disc looks like a halo over each of their heads.” 

Andrew Lyons will be speaking at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, at Books Inc. on Fourth Street in Berkeley, 525-7777. On display will be a selection of the latest books on Afghanistan, and Books Inc. will donate a percentage of the night’s sales to HALO. For more information on HALO, including how to contribute, go to halousa.org. 




Andrew Lyons 

7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, at Books Inc., 1760 Fourth St. 525-7777. Books Inc. will donate a percentage of the night’s sales to HALO. For more information on HALO, including how to contribute, visit halousa.org.