Feature: All women Egyptian search and detect team making its mark in Mali

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“This is an alert. This is not a test!” Commander Hossam Shafei, Chief of Operations, calls out across the Douentza airfield to Major Doaa Moussa, Commander of the search and detect team (SDT) and Captain Rana Ghourab, leader of an all women team of peacekeepers working with MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

Yaye Nabo Sene, writing for the mission in the West African country, explains SDTs are trained to identify explosive ordnance and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for safe removal by an explosive ordnance disposal team.

The team deployed in Douentza is working in an area close to dirt roads regularly used by civilians and often targeted by terrorists and armed groups. From 2020 to 2021, the country recorded the second largest increase in terrorism related deaths of civilians and peacekeepers, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

Once a task order is given there is no time to lose. Every second counts and the task is complex and meticulous. If one team member does not find an IED or landmine the safety and security of an entire convoy is at risk. Moussa is aware of this: “This team must protect the peacekeepers and the civilians. It’s a heavy responsibility”, she said.

The team moves to the armoury, inspects and collects weapons as well as search and detect equipment.

Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim Rady gives final security instructions and information before the team heads to the affected site. Once on site, within 10 minutes, the team identifies and defuses a landmine.

This was an exercise to ensure the team is properly prepared.

Since 2013, attacks on peacekeepers in Mali increased from two IED related incidents in October 2013 to 12 in 2022, with peaks in 2014 of 19 incidents and 2021 with 15. A hundred and sixty-two peacekeepers died in hostile acts over the same period.

Brigadier General Ahmed Ezz, Egyptian Police Unit Commander, states “the real heroes are those who risk their lives every day for peace”.

The MINUSMA Egyptian Formed Police Unit, deployed in Douentza since 2017, set up three SDTs to tackle the persistent threat of IEDs in Mali. One is all women police officers – the first all-women SDT deployed in a UN peace operation.

The creation of this team and the work it does is a source of pride, not only for the Egyptian Formed Police Unit, but also for MINUSMA senior leadership.

“In 2022, we lost 12 colleagues following explosions, and 88 others sustained injuries. Each incident is a reminder of the risk peacekeepers face every day when serving under the UN flag and in the service of peace in Mali. This new approach of the Egyptian Police in MINUSMA is an initiative to ensure the safety and security of peacekeepers, given the persistence of the threat, especially due to the lethality of IEDs and mines,” MINUSMA Head El-Ghassim Wane said.

Troops on patrol and convoys moving through Malian territory to implement the United Nations peace mission’s protection of civilians’ mandate are often the targets of IEDs, particularly in the northern and central regions.

“We are proud to be the first women to be trained in IED threat mitigation. It is a tool that will help us empowering women in Egypt and the Middle East. This experience will also show women can do anything men can,” said Ghourab. “We respect gender equality here, as we do at the UN, which means assigning women the same tasks as men. When we go home, we can be proud of what we have achieved.”

“It is a dangerous job to search for IEDs/mines. Our female police officers are on the front line during operations where they gain experience,” adds Ezz. “Whenever we prepare a rotation, we start with a debrief, so they can share experiences with the new contingent.”

MINUSMA has 1 739 police officers, just over ninety percent of authorised strength of 1 920. Women represent 26% of the 309 non-formed unit personnel and 14% of the 1 430 formed unit personnel.