Education programmes for children and communities in villages are an important part of the demining process and form part of Denel Mechem’s demining activities in the 11 African countries it is operating in, the company says.
According to UN estimates, there are at least 110 million active mines scattered across the world, of which about 44 million have been planted on the African continent. Mechem, part of the Denel group, is the only African company accredited by the UN for landmine clearance, as the rest are based abroad.
Ashley Williams, company CEO, said that, “Mechem’s primary function is to move into post-conflict regions and to clear large swathes of countryside where landmines were planted by various groups of combatants. Local villagers, including children, are often aware of the location of mines and can provide the deminers with valuable information.
However, we continue to warn them about the dangers of these devices and encourage them to let us know immediately should they spot planted mines or other unexploded ordnance,” he says. Identified danger areas are then clearly marked and villages are informed about the potential dangers lurking in such areas.
Mechem personnel are currently active in 11 countries on the African continent in support of peace-keeping operations conducted by either the United Nations or other international and national agencies.
“Mechem is still supporting the UN operations in South Sudan where the company cleared more than 9 000 kilometre of roads and removed some 3 300 explosive devices prior to the referendum on independence in late 2010,” Williams said.
Williams noted that clearing landmines is life-changing. “The presence of landmines in any area effectively isolates communities who are afraid to move. We came across a village in Sudan where residents hadn’t used their main road for 15 years.” The mere threat of mines can lay fallow vast tracts of land and cause serious displacement. “A village of 10 000 people were moved to another area for three years – we found only five landmines in the minefield. This is the power of landmines,” said Williams.
Johan Coetzee, the Senior Portfolio Manager: Operations said Mechem has a policy to utilise local nationals, where possible, to participate in the demining operations. They are given extensive training in both the theoretical and practical elements of manual demining, as well as advanced training in explosive ordnance disposal. Each team member is also fully trained in first aid and medical assistance.
Mechem is exceptionally proud of its safety record, said Williams. The company has not lost a single employee to a mining incident since it started its African operations in 1992.
A typical team consists of demining experts travelling in mine-protected vehicles supported by Mechem trained sniffer dogs. Roads are being swept on a regular basis but the bulk of the time is being spent on clearing identified minefields in the countryside.
“This is a painstaking and highly dangerous operation”, explained Coetzee. “Modern technology and sniffer dogs can help us to detect the presence of mines – but in most instances the lifting and disposal of the mines have to be done manually.”