Helen Gray talked with Janet Nicol
It may be the most dangerous job in the world, but it doesn’t seem to faze Helen Gray. The feisty Scot heads a team of female ‘de-miners’ in Mozambique, a country littered with thousands of lethal landmines after nearly two decades of deadly civil war. Over 900,000 died in the fighting, which began in 1977. Five million civilians were displaced, while thousands lost limbs as a result of the landmines. Gray and her Mozambican colleagues work for the HALO Trust, a small non-governmental organization whose sole mandate is to rid countries of military debris. And in Mozambique they’ve had resounding success. ‘More than 100,000 mines have been destroyed since 1994,’ according to Gray. ‘The four provinces in the north are now mine-free.’
De-miners’ work differs from that of sappers – soldiers who plant and disable landmines – so only the peace-minded need apply. Once an occupation dominated by men, HALO began recruiting women in the 1990s. Gray was just 24 when she signed on in 2004. She spent two years in Angola, then in 2007 transferred to Mozambique.
‘I wanted to work in the humanitarian field,’ Gray recalls from her temporary home in Chimoio, a city in the centre of the country. ‘This is tangible work. You destroy a landmine, it’s gone. De-mining is not a black art or rocket science. It just needs to be carried out methodically and safely. When the mines are cleared, we’ve removed a problem for the local community.’
When Mozambique’s conflict began, the Soviet-backed FRELIMO Government set landmines to defend power supplies and transport routes, while South African-supported RENAMO rebels countered with their own mines aimed at closing roads between towns and markets. A portion of the war debris can be cleared with mechanical devices, but most of the detailed clean-up requires people.
‘We make a difference,’ Gray admits. ‘Once the land is cleared, the local population can move freely, till the soil, build houses, walk to the river or simply not worry about their children running into the bush behind the village.’
Gray is well acquainted with the rural life, having grown up on a farm in East Lothian, Scotland. She worked as an environmental interpreter at the Scottish Seabird Centre and then spent a year as an expedition guide in Peru’s endangered rainforest.
‘First we survey the area,’ Gray says. ‘We speak to people in the community – ex-police officers, farmers and soldiers. It’s been 16 years since the war ended, but many still know where the mines are. We then create accurate surveys to identify minefields.’
A team of 10 people don face shields and bullet-proof vests before heading into the field. All have been highly trained and four of them, including the section commander and supervisor, also have paramedic skills.
Concentration is critical. ‘We use metal detectors and our work is very methodical,’ Gray explains. ‘We have tight rules for safety reasons. We mark the area with lines of red sticks and de-mine along clear wide strips, inch by inch.’
A mine could still explode unexpectedly. This means de-miners must stay on marked paths that have already been cleared. If there is an explosion, workers are trained to stay calm and follow the path out. A Land Rover ambulance, fitted with a radio for communication, is on site in case of emergency.
‘We start at 6 in the morning and finish at 1pm, six days a week,’ Gray continues. ‘Most of our teams are in camps near the worksite. We work for 50 minutes and take 10-minute breaks.’
HALO Trust currently employs 270 people across Mozambique. ‘It is important to hire local people so the salaries go back into the communities,’ Gray stresses. In fact, of the 8,000 employees working for HALO in nine countries, most are locals.
Recruiting women hasn’t been a problem. The women de-miners working with Gray are enthusiastic about their job.
Luisa Paulo Mondlane, 22, is single and says she became a de-miner ‘because of curiosity and necessity’. Her colleague Sheila Chiponde, 21, is proud and disciplined. Chiponde is single with one child: ‘I feel like a queen. It’s like a military life.’
Ercilia de Fatima, 24, and Flora Armando, 27, are both married with one child, and have been de-miners for almost two years. Both enjoy the strong friendships with staff, although Armando points out that ‘the tents allow water in when it rains’ and ‘it can be too hot when the sun is strong’. All four women hope to use their wages for more education.
HALO’s goal is to clear all the mines in Mozambique by 2014. But more funding is urgently needed to help pay salaries.
Last spring HALO teams near the capital, Maputo, began working in an area supposedly cleared by the state electrical company. They discovered thousands of landmines and unearthed human and animal skeletal remains. ‘It just goes to show the difference between commercial de-miners and humanitarian clearance,’ Gray says.
By ensuring the land is completely safe, Gray and her co-workers are building a hopeful future in Mozambique – mine by mine.
For more information visit the HALO website: www.halotrust.org