Guest post by Kjersti Tokle Fjellhaug, Mine Action Advisor with APOPO
There is this image that keeps coming back to me every so often. I met a four-year-old boy while visiting a physical rehabilitation centre in Colombia. He sat on a small chair in front of a small table. A woman, probably his mother, accompanied him. A physiotherapist sat on the other side of the table. She was holding some cards in front of him, and it looked like they were playing a game. I could not be further off. The boy tried to manoeuvre his hand to grip the cards, but his hand had been replaced with a prosthesis.
He seemed so small and earnest in his struggles and I could not help but cursing whatever had caused the loss of this boy’s hand. There was a conflict, but that little boy should never have been the target. The landmine that “took” him could not discriminate between soldiers and children and would strike anyone who would come across it. Just like a soldier that never sleeps and keeps on fighting til the bitter end, decades after the real war has ended. The silent soldier kills, maims and injures its targets indiscriminately – 70 to 85% of landmine casualties are civilians.
Most countries that suffer from mines are war torn, with poor or non-existing health care services. Many landmine victims will never receive the care and treatment that they need and should receive. The four-year-old boy has only begun his lifelong struggle. He is one of several hundreds of children and adults that fall victims of landmines each year. As the boy grows, he will require a new prosthesis every six months. He is probably luckier than most other mine victims, but this is poor consolation. For his and other victims’ sake, we cannot afford to slow down our efforts to rid the world of mines.
Finding and clearing mines is time-consuming, slow and dangerous. The problem is too big and has taken too long to get rid of, meaning that funds are drying out due to donor fatigue. For people who live among landmines, life will only be truly good when the last landmine has left the ground. Creating cost-effective, high-impact mine removal programs is therefore necessary to eliminate the mines left in former and active conflict regions around the world, such as Mozambique, Cambodia and Angola.
Clearance operations, however, are known to be slow and costly. In the past, it was found that clearance had been conducted in areas that contained no mines, because they can be hard to locate. In order to clear mines from the right areas, systematic collection of information prior to clearance is essential. This process is now often referred to as non-technical survey, which combines a desk assessment with field observations and informant interviews. The survey gathers and analyses past records, land use and visible signs of mines. The aim is to use survey tools, both non-technical and technical assets, such as manual deminers or mine detections rats (MDRs), to reduce the need for full clearance, which is more expensive and time consuming.
Low-cost mine identification and removal tools are also needed to maximize available resources. My organization, APOPO, for example, works with rats to aid this process. Rats are a very efficient tool for releasing large mine suspected areas and can help free areas from the threat of landmines efficiently and at very low costs. Our ultimate goal is to reach the zero new landmine victims goal in the countries where we work. It’s a hairy goal but we cannot aim for any less.
APOPO is a social enterprise that researches, develops and uses detection rat-technology for humanitarian purposes, including Mine Action and Tuberculosis detection. With current mine action operations in Mozambique, Thailand, Angola and Cambodia APOPO aims to develop appropriate detection technologies, to empower vulnerable communities through finding local solutions to local problems thereby removing the structural barriers to development. APOPO aims to become the centre of excellence in detection rat technologies and to enhance the impact of life-saving activities.
Kjersti Tokle Fjellhaug is a Mine Action Advisor with APOPO with 10 years of mine action experience. She has worked for Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Norwegian People´s Aid (NPA). Kjersti has since been the Mines and Weapons Advisor of the Norwegian Red Cross before moving to APOPO where she initially established APOPO´s mine action programme in Thailand. She is now working as a global Mine Action Advisor based in Geneva.