Thursday 25 February 2021


Not sure if any of you have seen this film, but I can thoroughly recommend it.  Naturally, while I may be keen on it, in the sense of being a professional in this business and, therefore, possessed of a passing interest, I recognize the film may not be to everyone’s taste, especially as it isn’t in English.  But it is worth a fraction of your time on earth.


There was a particular scene in the film I was hoping to isolate and share with you all but, sadly, I am a bit cack handed when it comes to pirating copyrighted films so, in order to see the scene I have in mind, you are just going to have to slog through the film until you see the truck blow up.  The trailer should, however give you a flavour which, if you are at least mostly human, will rest bitter on the palate.

Often, it is inconvenient to blow up every remnant of war in situ.  After all, we are trying to clear and release land back to the local population as quickly as possible so the land can be returned to productive use.  Making the locals, the beneficiaries to use acceptable terminology, wait years while we pop off every mine or projectile individually is ridiculous, they’ll starve to death before we finish.  Not only that, it buggers up the terrain and makes finding anything else that may be hidden just below the surface that much harder to find if a tonne or so of spoil and metal detector confounding shrapnel has just descended upon it.  Best to make all the bad stuff safe, or make the qualified decision that the dangerous stuff is safe enough to move, gather it all together, transport it somewhere very isolated, and let it all go together in one almighty great big bang.  That way more fields bloom, quicker.

Rapid and effective land release.  We are all under not only a self-imposed pressure to alleviate suffering, but also the budgetary pressures imposed by donors.  Whichever way you look at it and however grateful we are for their intervention and support, donors want to see a return on investment and, if we are to continue, we need to satisfy this rather fundamental requirement.

Demining is expensive, about 4 USD per square metre as a very rough average if conducted by an efficient organization so if you are demining a whole country, work it out for yourself.  Any initiative that can reduce this cost thereby releasing greater acreages to productive use has to be explored and a recent innovative idea is rats.

Rats are clever little buggers and anyone who has experience of them knows that once they are inside your house, they are almost impossible to get rid of and, if you do manage to expel them, they’ll at the very least have left you with a nest chewed from the deeds of your house inside your impossible-to-get-into wall safe.

Let us not argue whether rats are as efficient at detecting mines as a good and well trained man or woman behind the very best mine detector on the market today.  The fact remains, when something nasty is discovered, whether by rat or human, it is up to a human being to decide whether to blow the thing in-situ, or disarm and move it.  The burden of responsibility is enormous.  Regardless of the methods and procedures used to locate, identify and dispose, all remnants of war are dangerous, no matter how many precautions are employed by those who selflessly volunteer to clear them away for the greater good of their fellow citizens.  And nowadays most of us engaged in this activity are volunteers, not like my old Angolan colleague’s first introduction to combat mine clearance when he, and all his 16,17 and 18-year-old comrade conscripts were lined up shoulder to shoulder and encouraged at gunpoint to shuffle across a mine field to clear a path for the more experienced troops behind.  If I wasn’t already convinced of what a harrowing experience that must have been his confession, delivered with no hint of shame, that he was one of the lucky ones and reached the other side with heavily soiled underwear sealed the deal.

Mine clearance has changed a lot over the years.  In just the nearly four decades I have been involved in explosives disposal of one sort or another, I can see the transformation from enthusiastic amateur to highly trained professional and incidents across the profession are thankfully rare, just a few a year.  All the more remarkable when you consider that a single team can clear thousands of mines and dispose of many tonnes of ammunition a year, some of it, such as scatterable (cluster) munitions, extremely bloody dodgy.  While we are all aware that something could happen, it is still sobering when it does.  A few days ago, a truck was being loaded with ammunition so that it could be transported to a demolition site.  It is too early to say with any confidence exactly what happened but the detonation obliterated the truck killing two colleagues and injuring several more, one of whom finally succumbed to his injuries yesterday.

I know personally military explosive ordnance disposal professionals who have been decorated for bravery, and there are many others but I was hard pressed to find the scores of civilians who must surely have been recognized with an award for their quiet courage.  All I could find was this:

I did a quick calculation.  Given the lifetime clearance rate of this medal winner, a further 153,845 rats would be required to clear just Cambodia.  Perhaps PDSA should invest in a foundry.  After all, that’s an awful lot of medals they're going to have to mint.