Story and Photos by Katie Machell
Between 1978 and 1987, the Ennedi region of northeast Chad was the scene of a series of military campaigns fought with neighbouring Libya. An area of incredible beauty and majestic scenery, at first glance it is hard to imagine it as a battlefield. But 30 years after the conflict has ended and the soldiers are long gone, devasting aftereffects remain, in the form of unexploded ordnances left buried in the ground.
Minefields are an insidious, invisible legacy of war.
MAF partner Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been operating in Chad since 2004, clearing land of explosives to help improve the safety and security of the local population, working in recent years as part of a consortium with HI and FSD, as part of a European Union financed project. MAG, in conjunction with the National Mine Agency, currently has 50 deminers deployed in the Harignala minefield, one of several in the region. On a recent flight, MAF brought some official visitors to meet the MAG staff and to see first-hand their vital work.
MAG’s Operations Director Mark explains the importance of the operation. ‘The devices were laid back in the days of the war, 30 odd years ago. Since then, no one has properly marked out the mines or the minefield itself, and so local people have lost a lot of camels and other livestock there. Livestock here in Chad is worth more than its weight in gold; to lose camels has a big financial impact. It can be catastrophic when an animal dies.
The area also has ‘wadis’ (valleys or channels that are dry except in the rainy season) which alter the landscape at different times of the year. The passage of water through the minefield moves the explosives around, compounding the difficulty of knowing where the danger lies.
‘Once the rains come in, the area becomes nice and green with lots of vegetation, the perfect ground for animals to graze. But what we have seen is that if the animals are wounded or killed by a mine, then the shepherd goes to get them back, or perhaps sends his son to get the animals out and unfortunately, they step on a mine, and so we have the knock-on effect of more deaths and grievous injuries to the local population. Hence MAG was tasked by the National Mine Agency to come up here and start clearing this minefield.’
MAG operates one mine-clearing vehicle in Ennedi; the rest of the work is done ‘by hand’. It is a painstaking task, made even harder by the weight of protective clothing and the relentless heat of the sun. Overseen by three Technical Field Managers, the team works in groups, spending 45 minutes at a time on the field before a mandatory 15-minute break. Rest and rehydration are essential, and mobile phones may not be carried onto the minefield. Loss of concentration could cost a life.
MAG’s focus also extends beyond the explosives in the ground, as Mark describes. ‘There are three main aspects to our work: demining; weapons and ammunition management; and community liaison work. So far I’ve always done the ‘hands on’ work, clearing of remnants of war.
‘Community liaison involves a lot of risk education, particularly with children. The last thing we want is children picking up unexploded ordnances thinking they’re toys, so they’re taught not to touch them, how to mark them if they find them, and most importantly to tell the authorities, who then tell us.’
Although he has been on the MAG staff for a relatively short time, Mark can already see what a difference their work makes. ‘Up to today, we have found 15 mines and 8 items of ordnance (anti-tank rockets, artillery shells and mortar rounds), which may not look like much, but what we have achieved is the clearance of upwards of 600,000 square meters that can then be used by the local population and their animals. The animals can eat, which obviously makes them worth more money, which feeds into the cycle of stability and growth within the country.’
The dangerous nature of the work necessitates robust medical procedures, which is where MAF plays a role. ‘Our partnership with MAF provides a key element of our Casualty Evacuation Chain, the system we must have in place in case of injury. To be honest, we probably couldn’t achieve what we do without that facility; it would be a massive risk. To transport an injured person to the nearest hospital would take a day’s drive on very bad roads. In the worst case the person would probably die; not from their injuries, but from the sheer shock of being bounced around on the journey. Having an aircraft that can come here within four hours means that in a short space of time we can get the person to a good hospital in N’Djamena, and he’s got a high chance of living.’