The HALO Trust is an international non-profit conducting essential explosive ordnance disposal around the world.
As one of very few efforts to clear war-torn areas from landmines and other explosives, the HALO Trust’s work is vital for affected communities in bringing about an environment that allows social and economic activities to return to normal as well as begin to flourish once again. Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) is essentially the safe disposal and demolition of abandoned or unexploded bombs, shells, grenades and cluster munitions. Together, these items fit under the umbrella of ‘unexploded ordnance’ (UXO) or ‘explosive remnants of war’ (ERW). Landmines can be categorised as anti-personnel mines, anti-group mines, anti-vehicle mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These are what we refer to when we talk about ‘mine clearance’ or ‘demining’.
HALO currently clears landmines and other ERW in 25 countries and territories around the world. These include very severely mined countries where conflicts ended several decades ago – such as Cambodia, Angola and Zimbabwe – as well as places where conflict is more recent or ongoing, such as Somalia, Libya and Iraq. In Afghanistan, we are clearing minefields laid during the Soviet occupation, as well as weapons from more recent conflict.
Clearing mine-affected countries in Europe
In Europe, HALO operates explosive ordnance disposal and mine clearance programmes in Kosovo; Georgia; the disputed territories of Nagorno Karabakh and Abkhazia; as well as in the government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world, with at least half a million civilians directly threated by landmines and UXO. HALO and other demining operators have mapped over 24 million square metres of mined land so far, but the full extent of contamination is still not known; particularly in and around the line of contact between Ukrainian forces and non-government forces. Ukraine has held the grim title of holding the highest number of recorded anti-vehicle mine accidents than any other country in the world for the last three consecutive years.
Landmines and unexploded ordnances affect women and men of all ages and from all walks of life. HALO has recorded 2,054 mine and UXO civilian and military accidents in Ukraine since March 2014. Each of these has had life changing or fatal consequences – in March 2018, an entire family of four was killed when their car hit an anti-vehicle mine in the Luhansk region.
The threat posed to civilians by mines and UXOs has become slightly more manageable since the line of contact has stabilised. Until mid-2015, the frontline was constantly shifting; so it was hard to track where the minelaying was taking place. Mines and UXO are present in forests, fields and around villages, but local populations had no way of knowing where was safe and where was not; so simple day-to-day activities such as planting crops, collecting firewood or foraging – even going to school – became inherently dangerous and sometimes fatal. Since HALO and other organisations have been able to survey and clear minefields and started delivering mine risk awareness programmes in schools and communities, the accident rate has dropped from an average of 58 casualties a month to seven in 2019 so far.
How unexploded ordnances are located and identified
HALO employs local people to conduct what we call ‘non-technical surveys’ (NTS) in towns and villages affected by the conflict. This involves close community liaison: the teams interview people with good local knowledge, such as farmers, foresters, military personnel and the police. The knowledge gathered from these interviews may result in finding a single mine or munition; or it could help identify a whole area of contamination which we then divide and map into areas we call polygons. Once the area is identified, we can work out where needs to be cleared first according to how urgently the local population needs safe access to it. Examples of areas which would be considered urgent priorities for explosive ordnance disposal include those closest to habitation, school routes, agricultural land, livestock pasture and access roads to markets.
How items are rendered safe or disposed of through neutralisation or demolition
HALO’s global policy is to destroy mines and UXO in situ, as this greatly reduces the risk of accidental detonation. However, HALO’s work in Ukraine differs from other countries, as the national legislation does not provide a legal framework for carrying out explosive ordnance disposal activities by non-state actors. So, HALO automatically hands over all found mines and ordnances to the Ukrainian army or state emergency service for safe disposal.
The vast majority of items found by HALO are retrieved while clearing minefields, but it is not uncommon to find single or small stockpiles of UXO when conducting a survey.
HALO’s specialist approaches for dealing with remnants of war
The HALO Trust works in accordance with International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) and so has strictly defined and rigorously enforced standard operating procedures (SOPs) which determine how staff deal with different types of explosives on different terrain and in different climates. All deminers must wear body armour and protective face visors. There are different procedures for manual and mechanical demining: in Ukraine, for example, manual mine clearance involves each man or women being designated a metre-long lane in which they search for metal signals with detectors. Each signal is carefully investigated through excavation with hoes or hand tools. In some places, deminers slowly trace batons through the air between the branches of trees or bushes to search for tripwires. When we clear former battlefields or damaged buildings, we use armoured machines such as front loaders and excavators.
Providing prospects for the community
HALO does not recruit volunteers at the operational level: as a humanitarian operator, we believe in giving local populations affected by mines the dignity of a regular salary and prospect of career development. In Ukraine, we currently employ 384 operations staff, of whom 17% are women. Their equipment, training and salaries are generously funded by the governments of Germany, the United Kingdom, the US State Department, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Czechia. In the past, activities in Ukraine have also been funded by Switzerland and the European Union.
HALO is currently seeking to expand our staff to 500, but we need a further €2m per year if we are to achieve this. This would enable us to speed up the time it is taking to clear the land across eastern Ukraine and put it back to productive use. All new recruits undergo basic UXO recognition courses, medical and detector training. Those that show the right leadership qualities can then progress to team leader positions which entitles them to further explosive ordnance disposal training. Overall, the typical length of basic demining training for a non-supervisory role is five weeks.
Challenges for the HALO Trust in its explosive ordnance disposal work
In Ukraine, the Law on Mine Action was only adopted in January 2019 and became effective three months later. The mine action sector is therefore still developing; and the projected National Mine Action Authority and National Mine Action Centre are yet to be established. In the meantime, humanitarian organisations such as HALO run explosive ordnance disposal operations according to international best practice and report to interim authorities. However, due to the lack of legislation, cleared land cannot be formally handed over to the communities. This does not prevent people from using their land after the work on a minefield is completed, but HALO is unable to formally hand over records to the local authorities of the exact location of the clearance and the processes that took place in order to declare the land safe.
Additionally, current legislation does not allow humanitarian organisations to use explosives or destroy the items found during clearance or survey activities. In order to ensure the destruction and safe removal of these items, organisations such as HALO have to contact the Ukrainian armed forces or the state emergency service. This process generally runs smoothly, but there can be a delay between the time when an item is found and its removal. This can negatively impact operations; as when an item is found, all deminers have to be moved a safe distance away to work on other areas of the minefield. This can affect the plan for clearing the minefield and the time it takes to return the cleared land back to the communities.
The HALO Trust in Ukraine faces several operational challenges, including a threat of mines attached to tripwires or the presence of mines containing minimum metal. Both types of threat require very lengthy clearance techniques. Two-stage manual demining is used for the clearance of tripwire initiated anti-personnel mines and hand grenades laid above surface; this is then followed by subsurface clearance of anti-vehicle mines using metal detectors. The identification of minimum-metal mines requires a metal detector with higher sensitivity which then reacts to other small metal objects present in the ground. This slows down the search process as a deminer needs to inspect more signals.
In order to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its explosive ordnance disposal practices, HALO is constantly trialling new techniques. In Ukraine, these include the use of a detector with ground penetrating radar to identify minimum metal mines or remotely controlled vegetation cutters that could potentially speed up the clearance of minefields containing a tripwire threat.
Unexploded bombs in the land contributing to the refugee crisis
Unexploded ordnance and landmines are indisputably a driver of both internal displacement and the global refugee crisis. In Ukraine, explosive remnants of war continue to stifle economic recovery and development – most obviously among villagers who are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods and therefore forced to leave their homes and settle elsewhere.
HALO’s last socioeconomic baseline assessment in selected settlements in eastern Ukraine affected by mines showed that landmines and UXO had a detrimental effect on 57% of household incomes, with one in five survey respondents reporting they have limited or blocked access to agricultural areas because of mines or UXO.
HALO is active in many of the countries where populations have been forced to flee conflict, either internally or across borders. Our largest and oldest explosive ordnance disposal operation is in Afghanistan. We can see a direct link between mine clearance and solving the refugee crisis there: for example, British, UNVFT and US funding recently enabled HALO to clear an area on the outskirts of Herat City. Satellite images taken before clearance started show the area to be virtually deserted; but the same map after clearance shows that an entire township has sprung up on what was previously mined land. Today nearly 60,000 former refugees and internally displaced people from the ethnic Hazara population have set up homes and businesses there. This correlation is visible in Sri Lanka as well, where over 300,000 Tamils have been able to return to their homes in the north because of mine clearance.
Knowledge sharing is key to successful work
There are only a few organisations working on clearance of explosive remnants of war globally, so as a sector we know each other well and co-operate in many affected countries. A major platform for sharing knowledge is the International Mine Action Standards, which are updated regularly based on input from the operators. Apart from the clearance organisations, the national authorities responsible for explosive ordnance disposal and mine clearance in the affected countries play also an important role. In many countries they can co-ordinate and advise on the clearance plan according to the highest humanitarian needs in the country, and in many cases, they will also perform a quality assurance check before cleared land is finally handed over to local communities.
The HALO Trust
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