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Desperately Seeking Landmines

• March 01, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Despite years of research on everything from ‘HeroRATS’ to TNT-sniffing bees, humans still remove most landmines by poking — very, very carefully — in the ground.

On his knees in a field of freshly cropped weeds, protected by a Plexiglas visor and a bulletproof smock, Mohammed Inazario-Mendes digs carefully in sun-baked dirt. He loosens a little with a long-handled steel spoon, then scoops it out with his hands. Then he does it again. Inch by inch, he painstakingly advances a little trench toward the spot a foot away marked with three red sticks.

Inazario-Mendes has good reason to work slowly. Just this morning, two landmines were unearthed only yards from where he’s digging. His job is to find out if the object that triggered his metal detector — the thing underneath those sticks — is another one.

A row of red-tipped wooden stakes marches away to either side, delineating the bounds of this minefield in the lush central highlands of the southern African nation of Angola. Residents of the nearby town of Monte Belo once used this area to pasture their goats and cattle. But during Angola’s decades-long civil war, government forces set up a military position here and surrounded it with mines. When the war ended, the troops went home but left the mines behind — somewhere. No one knows exactly how many there are or where they’re buried. In the last couple of years, one incautious person and two unlucky animals straying into the area have had limbs blown off.

Inazario-Mendes is one of 14 local men working to clear the Monte Belo minefield under the auspices of the HALO Trust, a British nonprofit that removes the lethal leftovers of war — from mines to unexploded ammunition — around the world. The pay isn’t great, but he likes the work. “I’m never scared,” he says. “You just have to concentrate.”

The careful concentration required, however, makes for very slow results. It has taken Inazario-Mendes and his team almost nine months to clear an area barely larger than three soccer fields. Though HALO has been active in Angola for 15 years and employs some 1,100 deminers, it estimates there are still as many as 600,000 mines left there. At this rate, it will take 10 years to clear them all.

Every year, some 5,000 Angolans are killed or injured by buried explosives left over from the war that ended eight years ago. Mines also put thousands of square kilometers of land off limits, a major issue in a country where most people survive by subsistence agriculture. And Angola is just one of more than 70 countries plagued with mines.

So it’s little wonder that from Japan to Croatia, governments, nongovernmental organizations and businesses are scrambling to make demining more efficient. Years of research and tens of millions of dollars have been poured into the effort, yielding innovative systems that use everything from the highest technology to the lowliest animals. Seeming breakthroughs have been touted at international conferences and in breathless news reports for years.

So why is Mohammed Inazario-Mendes still on his knees with a metal detector and a steel spoon?

People have been killing each other with buried explosives since at least 1277, when the Chinese bedeviled invading Mongols with bombs hidden in the ground, according to military historian William C. Schneck. In Europe, armies of that era dug tunnels under enemy fortifications to make them collapse. Florentine soldiers attacking the city of Pisa in 1403 added the wrinkle of filling one of these “mines,” as they became known, with explosive black powder.

Crude hidden bombs triggered by tripwires or long fuses began appearing on European battlefields in the 1500s. The weapons grew progressively more lethal as technology improved. Confederate soldiers planted thousands of what they called “land torpedoes” in the American Civil War, and several countries introduced poison gas mines in World War I. But the weapons really came into vogue in World War II; more than 300 million mines — from large anti-tank devices to smaller anti-personnel explosives — were sown by all sides in that conflict. “They have been an important facet of almost every conflict since,” Schneck wrote in a monograph published in Engineer Bulletin.

In the Second World War, armies generally mapped where they planted their mines, making it easier to find them after the fighting finished. In the 1960s, however, the world lost track. American forces in Vietnam pioneered the use of “scatterables” — mines that could be deployed en masse from airplanes and helicopters. Meanwhile, ever-cheaper landmines — often supplied by the U.S. or Soviet Union to their Cold War proxies — became a weapon of choice in conflicts all over the decolonizing Third World. Keeping detailed records wasn’t exactly high on the guerrillas’ priority list.

The end of the Cold War opened the way for the United Nations and humanitarian groups to finally start clearing out some of those buried explosives. The drive against landmines made headlines as celebrities, including Princess Diana, took up the cause. The campaign achieved an astonishing success in 1997 when 122 nations signed a treaty pledging to stop using, producing and distributing anti-personnel mines. (The United States has not signed the treaty but has largely stopped making landmines.) According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, as of 2008, only Russia, Myanmar and non-state armed groups in seven countries were still planting anti-personnel mines.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are millions of explosives still hidden in the fields, forests and roads of dozens of countries.

Putting mine in the ground is about as easy as it gets. “You dig a hole and stick it in, pull the pin and walk away,” says Richard Grindle, HALO’s Angola director, a slim former British Army officer. Getting one out of the ground, however, is dangerous, expensive and astonishingly time-consuming.

In the Monte Belo minefield, as in many others, dense vegetation has grown up in the years since the war ended. Before demining can even begin, that foliage has to be cleared, one yard-wide strip at a time — slowly, carefully and using extra-long tools. The deminers then move in, sweeping handheld metal detectors over the ground. (In some places where money is short and metal detectors are unavailable, deminers resort to literally poking at the ground with a metal stick.) Whenever the detector beeps, the deminer drops a red stone or chip to mark the spot. Each one of those markers then has to be carefully excavated by someone like Inazario-Mendes. Digging up to a landmine from the side is generally safe, but it takes time. And much more often than not, the thing that triggered the metal detector turns out to have been a bullet casing, bottle cap or piece of bric-a-brac. If an actual mine is found, it has to be defused by an expert or exploded after everyone has vacated the area.

The result of this painstaking process: Land gets cleared thoroughly, but at a snail’s pace.

The governments of the U.S., Canada, Japan and the European Union have spent tens of millions of dollars trying to speed things up, supporting experiments with a vast range of technologies and devices. A catalog produced by the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining attempts to list them all; it runs to 226 pages.

There are gadgets that can sniff out minute amounts of explosive vapor or microscopic particulates that waft up from buried mines. There are devices that bombard the ground with neutrons, which interact with explosives to emit specific types of traceable radiation. Other systems use acoustic waves generated by powerful loudspeakers to rattle the mines, generating a distinct vibration that can be picked up with laser sensors or microphones. A similar trick can be performed with seismic waves created by machines that literally shake the ground. Satellites and aircraft beaming down infrared radiation can spot thermal contrasts between mines and the soil they sit in. Other airborne sensors can spot a unique anomaly in light emitted by soil above a mine. Closer to the problem, there is the Air-Spade, which uses compressed air at supersonic velocities to blow the soil off a buried mine.

It’s all very exciting stuff — at least in the laboratory. So far, though, none of it really works. That is, it doesn’t work reliably enough, or only works under certain conditions, or is so expensive it doesn’t matter whether it works or not.

Take the Air-Spade. “It requires a compressor and lots of gear, and it blows dirt all over the place — including the little bit of metal you were looking for,” Grindle says.

Radiation-emitting detectors need radioactive materials for power — “and no one wants to deploy that kind of stuff in a war zone,” says Andy Smith, another British Army vet who works with demining groups around the world. “You could give someone the ability to make a dirty bomb.”

Many of the high-tech detection systems are flummoxed by ground that is too wet, too dry or too rocky. Training the generally poorly educated local people to use complicated new machinery can also be a major hurdle. And maintenance is always an issue. “There’s a lot of gee-whiz stuff being built,” says Bill Reid, a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who now works with Ronco Consulting Group, a commercial demining outfit. “But if you’re in the middle of Eritrea and something breaks, you’re stuck. And a lot of this gee-whiz stuff is easy to break.”

Where machines fall short, some researchers are looking to animals. APOPO, a joint Belgian/Tanzanian organization, is training giant rats to smell TNT and other chemicals that go boom. More than 30 of the immodestly titled “HeroRATS” are on the job in Mozambique. Researchers at the University of Montana are training — yes, training — honeybees to seek out mines. The insects can sense explosives and be rewarded with food for finding them. Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers at one point were thinking even smaller: They experimented with a strain of sprayable bacteria that turns fluorescent in the presence of TNT.

A HeroRAT at work in Mozambique. (Courtesy of www.herorat.org)

Deminers on the ground, though, are unimpressed. “Mine-detecting rats are very media-sexy, and they attracted a lot of money, but they’re useless,” Smith says. Their legs are too small to walk regular patterns in overgrown fields, so vegetation must be trimmed, and the rats attached to a string to literally keep them in line. “You need to spend so much time clearing space, you’re better off doing it manually,” Smith says. The fluorescing bacteria also proved a hard sell. “There are huge problems getting people to accept the idea that you’re going to spray microbes over their land,” says Noel Mulliner, technical coordinator for the United Nations Mine Action Service.

“There are hundreds of ways you can possibly detect mines,” Mulliner says. “But very few survive the development course and reach the finish line where they’re practical.”

Those very few, however, have begun making a difference in recent years. The use of dogs has increased as training methods have improved. Explosive-sniffing canines are currently used in about a dozen countries. “They can work 15 to 20 times the speed of a deminer with a detector,” says Reid, whose company uses dogs to help clear minefields in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But dogs have their limitations, too. A pooch trained in, say, the Jordanian desert won’t necessarily work well in the jungles of Nicaragua.

Back on the gadget side, there is a growing catalogue of unsubtle machines that don’t bother finding mines — they just destroy them. These “mechanical deminers” — some human-operated, some remote-controlled — are heavily armored to withstand even direct blasts. Among the most effective are “flails,” rotating drums fitted with hammers or chains that are mounted on the front of an armored vehicle and batter the ground, deliberately triggering mines. Other machines gouge up the soil onto a screen that sifts out the ordnance or comb through the ground with a powerful rotating tiller that pushes the mines to one side where they can be destroyed.

A medium-sized flail, though, costs as much as $700,000. Worse, these machines can toss mines by accident, or simply miss them. That makes them good enough for the military mine clearance they were developed for. “For the military, it’s about, ‘Can we get through this field with an acceptably low risk of stepping on a mine?'” Grindle says. “That might mean it’s 95 percent, even 99 percent clear. But for civilians to use the land, it’s got to be 100 percent.”

For that level of thoroughness, there’s still no substitute for a human being with a handheld detector. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the most significant advances in demining technology have been improvements in the detectors themselves. Metal detectors have gained the ability to spot a mine even in soil with a high iron content, which used to baffle them. So-called plastic mines, which contain almost no metal, used to be essentially invisible, but up-to-date detectors can now spot their tiny metal triggers.

Perhaps the most promising new technology to reach the field is ground-penetrating radar. A GPR unit shoots an electromagnetic wave into the ground that reflects off buried objects, giving important information on an object’s size, form and electromagnetic properties. In short, ground-penetrating radar can tell the difference between a hubcap and a landmine — a distinction that can speed up a deminer’s work tremendously. HALO Trust Director Guy Willoughby has called it “the main breakthrough in mine clearance since 1940.”

Developed by the U.S. military at a cost of $73 million, GPR has only recently been adopted by humanitarian demining groups. HALO and other organizations are using just 100-odd of the units worldwide.

HALO is also trying out a system called the Mine Stalker — a remote-controlled, six-wheeled vehicle equipped with ground penetrating radar, a global positioning system and digital mapping software. This combination allows the unit to spot buried mines and mark the location for defusing teams. Researchers in Japan and Europe are working on other GPR-based systems.

But there’s a catch, of course: the price tag. The handheld GPR systems HALO is using in Angola cost $15,000 each. “If there’s a large amount of clutter, GPR is a huge advantage,” Mulliner says. “But if there are low numbers of mines and little clutter, it’s a waste of money. We haven’t done enough testing to say where the cutoff is — nor can we know the amount of clutter until the field is cleared.”

That points up what’s most needed to speed up demining: cold cash. International funding for demining dropped by nearly 10 percent from 2006 to 2007. Funding levels have since recovered, but money remains tight. Demining operations in Lebanon have been cut by two-thirds thanks to recession-induced cash shortfalls. Jim Megill, executive director of CAMEO, a small Canadian nonprofit demining group that works mainly in Sudan, had to close the group’s office last summer and now runs it from his Ontario home. “It’s gotten harder and harder to raise funds,” he says.

So while the demining groups hustle for money and the inventors tinker, Mohammed Inazario-Mendes will keep on digging up mines by hand. The work may be frustrating and dangerous — but at least he has some job security.

Vince Beiser
Vince Beiser is an award-winning journalist based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @vincelb.

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