Last month, 180 of our staff were travelling early in the morning in six trucks from their demining camp to the minefields they were working on in Khurum wa Sarbagh district, Samangan province, Afghanistan. As they were travelling along the road, an IED initiated just behind the final truck in the convoy. Although none of our staff were killed, the IED caused serious injuries to six in the back of the truck.
This slide has a map showing the district where the incident occurred in red, the light damage to the truck, and the crater in the road following the blast. Our teams were caught in an ambush position prepared by an armed opposition group. Their intended target was Afghan National Security Forces. Injuries to our staff were principally to the eyes and ears who are now convalescing in hospital. They did not expect to be hit by an IED on a route they had been travelling daily in an area well known to HALO. Although we were forced to suspend operations following the incident, our teams were back on the ground within the week with the full support of local communities. The IED used was a “bushkai minona” which translated into English means jerry can mine, a pressure plate IED of the type pictured in the top right corner of this slide. I mention this incident as a reminder that even as a humanitarian organisation, we are not immune to the scourge of IEDs, and to note that many of the devices we expect to encounter in Afghanistan are improvised mines.
For this presentation, I will draw primarily on our experience in Afghanistan which is a country heavily affected by IEDs. I would like to mention that HALO has been involved in dealing with the threat posed by these devices, or components of them, in their different forms in different countries for many years. To protect civilians from IEDs, it is important for us to be able to define the threat and the impact they have in order to remove them. For this, we want to have a dialogue with those that are affected and/or those that have knowledge of the problem. To help set the scene for this presentation, I have a short video which was taken two weeks ago in the districts of Nad Ali and Nawa in Helmand Province. The video includes interviews with three community leaders who give their impressions of how their communities are affected by IEDs.
There are a number of themes that can be drawn from their interviews but what they describe is similar to the way in which a community might describe how they are affected by land mines or other forms of explosive ordnance in and around their community.
For those that are affected, IEDs represent another form of explosive hazard that needs to be dealt with in order to safeguard lives and livelihoods. In the setting of rural Afghanistan, through interviews and by triangulating information from a number of sources, we can build up a picture of the threat and record its location accurately using maps and forms. This survey process and the compiling of information gives us an understanding of the scale and extent of the problem and how clearance should be prioritised. High quality and accurate information is essential to help national authorities address the problem at a strategic level and avoid exaggerating the problem, duplication of effort and waste.
It is important to establish whether access can be granted to the areas where IED have been laid and whether consent can be obtained for the destruction or removal of them.
In terms of access, it is necessary to determine whether local hostilities have ceased. For this, understanding the local powerbrokers and the history of local conflict is required. For consent, it is necessary to understand whether the individual or group who laid the IED still has an interest in it and whether there might be reprisals against the community or an operator if an IED is destroyed or removed. We are aware of community members in some parts of Afghanistan having been told by armed opposition groups that any tampering with an IED that continues to have value to that group will result in financial penalties or even death.
For a humanitarian operator to uphold the principle to ‘do no harm’, if consent is not forthcoming for the destruction or removal of an IED, then it is not the right time to deal with that IED. It may therefore be necessary to wait, or to lobby and change opinion in order to obtain consent. In areas that are not under Government control, the community may act as interlocutors to armed opposition groups in the area and may negotiate with them to allow an operator to begin clearance.
For operators, being able to espouse principles of neutrality, impartiality, equality and humanity, and to have a reputation for quality work aids access to areas and therefore clearance. Building a reputation takes time. It can be helped through the employment of those from affected communities to undertake the work.
Employment with a demining organisation offers a legitimate income which will be feed into homes and communities, improving socio‐economic conditions and providing stability. It can discourage young men and women of fighting age from joining armed opposition groups. For HALO’s part, it has a long history of taking on former combatants. In Afghanistan, we have some 250 former Taliban and Hezb‐e Islami fighters who gave up their weapons and their fight for a job through a Government‐led peace initiative. Employment with demining organisations is an attractive and dignified alternative and allows employees to work to protect their communities. We believe the model of employing people locally rather than relying on internationals is a model that should be applied to the clearance of IEDs, as in other areas of humanitarian demining.
Working closely with communities is an essential first step in protecting them. Whilst recognising the important role risk education plays in adjusting behaviours towards IEDs, providing a competent and trained clearance capacity in order to remove the threat posed by IEDs and to protect civilians is a priority.
In Afghanistan, HALO has established a dedicated training ground which is being used to prepare staff for onward deployment to Helmand province. We have re‐created the type of IEDs and the conditions that they are likely to face, and training has been provided by international experts. Standard operating procedures blend a traditional mine action approach with techniques developed by security forces. We have introduced new equipment such as new detecting technology capable of finding IED components. We are expecting to begin clearance in Helmand province in September.
(As an organisation, we are actively supporting the development of the International Mine Action Standards through participation at established working groups to strengthen them for mitigating the risks of IEDs.)
HALO recognises the importance of restricting the availability of materials that could be used in the production of IEDs. In southern Syria, where we have been conducting clearance since late 2017 our teams do encounter evidence of explosive harvesting. The photos here show a large number of anti‐vehicle mines where the explosive fill has been removed and the cases abandoned. In another instance we can see an artillery shell with a hole drilled into it with the majority of the explosives removed.
In Afghanistan we have dedicated teams that extract unsecured ammunition from former military sites and bunkers, and from caches held in communities. These teams also remove unwanted or unsafe ammunition from existing military and police sites to reduce the prevalence of these dangerous items.
We also provide a call out service to the Afghan National Security Forces when they seek support in the safe destruction of ammunition, explosives or explosive source material. Reducing the availability of these explosive items reduces the opportunity for ammunition and explosives in all forms to be used against the people of Afghanistan.
I should add that the achievements of HALO’s teams in the removal and destruction of ammunition and explosives to date in Afghanistan is truly impressive, and includes:
Over 7 million items of ammunition weighing over 27,000 tonnes
Over 546,000 anti‐personnel mines weighing over 149 tonnes
Over 12,000 anti‐vehicle mines weighing over 84 tonnes
Over 490 tonnes of explosives, home made explosives and explosive source material
A number of international donors have helped us to achieve this. Our current donors being the United States Department of State, the German Federal Foreign Office, and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
[These statistics do not include the achievements of HALO’s mine and battle field clearance teams which are accounted for separately.]
We recognise that IEDs in Afghanistan are by and large located in rural areas. We recognise that the wars fought in the Middle East have instead been focused in and around cities like Aleppo, Fallujah, Mosul, Raqqah, Damascus and Baghdad. There are similarities between these operating environments but also clear differences. We know that in an urban environment the picture is often less clear as IEDs and other explosive ordnance lie in amongst rubble, that there is a high level of destruction to infrastructure, and that the local population has often been displaced. HALO intends to become part of the much‐needed response to this issue through the delivery of large‐scale mine action activities in the region.
Whilst it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge to restore these cities, it is not the first time that we have faced such challenges. The pictures on the left of this slide show west Kabul as it was in the 1990s and as it is today. Fighting between Mujahedin groups caused massive destruction to this part of the city which displaced the local population. We worked with other operators to clear the area. For its part, HALO destroyed over 4,700 mines and 123,000 items of explosive ordnance with support from the U.S.A., UK and European Union. Booby traps and IEDs were encountered. 1.5 million people now live in and around West Kabul in a thriving environment. Importantly, it was this challenge that led HALO to first use machines adapted from those used by the construction industry to support the clearance. Machines were used with great effect and were subsequently adopted by HALO for operations globally.
HALO plans to address the current problem of urban contamination by combining years of experience in humanitarian clearance with innovative new methods. In addition to using manual deminers with the latest detecting technologies, we see the need to industrialise the clearance process and to increase the use of machines adapted from other sectors to address the problem. We are pleased to be actively working with private companies, manufacturers, research and development organisations, and engineers to consider the correct type and combination of crushers, sifters, excavators, diggers and ancillaries required to support clearance of urban environments safely, at scale and in a timely manner. We expect, in time, to export our working model, which will be started in Fallujah to other cities in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other countries facing similar challenges.
We recognise that remote management has a role to play. In Syria, our forward based operators are over‐ watched and supervised by international experts based in Jordan. We are using communication technology to provide this over‐watch and supervision and believe it has an important role to play in places where it is not possible to deploy outsiders.
I would end by saying that HALO recognises that there is an urgent need to support civilians affected by IEDs, and that to protect lives and restore livelihoods in areas affected by IEDs a concerted effort is required. The civilian population requires a broad range of humanitarian assistance, of which clearance of explosive ordnance is just one. HALO has increasing experience of working with organisations that provide other critical services in areas such as protection, water and sanitation, development, and we recognise the greater impact that can be achieved by a joined‐up approach. We are part of the comprehensive solution and urge donors to consider how their different and often separate funding streams can be mobilised to support a complete response.