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EDITIONS
Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 09:54 GMT
How we clear landmines
Bomb disposal team
Tony Thompson, left, and his bomb disposal team
The danger from mines in Afghanistan is a threat to millions of civilians. Here British mine clearer Tony Thompson explains the work behind the remarkable clearance operation which has taken place in Kosovo.

I am a 43-year-old ex British Royal Navy bomb disposal diver. I left the Navy soon after the Falklands conflict and took up a profession as a commercial saturation diver working in the North Sea.

I have been working as a mine clearance operator for the past 10 years in Somalia, Angola, Bosnia, Beirut and now Kosovo.

From June 99 to August 01
29,423,470 square meters cleared including
7,260 sub munitions
21,991 mines
13,233 unexploded ordinance
I arrived here in June 1999 to supervise two small rapid response explosive ordnance disposal teams clearing houses in the town of Prizren to enable the local people who fled Kosovo to return.

My teams, along with other organisations, have almost cleared all known dangerous areas within Kosovo. This achievement is second to none as very rarely does a country get completely cleared.

Trashed villages

The area we're working in is very close to the Albanian border and it was very heavily mined - not only to stop the NATO forces coming in from Albania to Kosovo in 1999, but to stop people getting on with their lives after the conflict.

Tony Thompson with mines
Tony Thompson recovers two anti-personnel mines
The terrain is very hilly and full of trees and there's all these paths coming down the hillside to the villages. These paths have been mined to prevent people coming down and attacking the villages.

In the early stages of 1999, all the local people left and the area was very heavily bombed by NATO. A lot of small villages that once held 15 to 20 families are now completely deserted and trashed. What we're trying to do is clear these areas so the people can come back and start reconstructing their houses.

engineers practice land mine clearing
Mine clearing teams went in after the NATO bombing
In my area, the mine action centre was given the records for about 660 mine fields as part to the peace agreement. But in some cases, either the records were not made or the soldier that made those records might have been killed and buried with them in his pocket.

We've cleared all the recorded mine fields and we're now working on two or three minefields that we don't have records for - which is a bit of a bugbear.

We prod inch by inch and the dogs are trained to clear every area by sniffing out the mines. No one knows what they smell, but they are very accurate and they smell the bouquet of the mine. The only thing is, the mine has to be in the ground for some time - you can't place a mine today and the dog will find it tomorrow. The aroma has to permeate the ground.

'There's a lot of rivalry'

People are coming back into the villages, but a lot of areas have been mined as part of a nuisance campaign.

Attack in lead-up to election
The bombed offices of the Democratic League of Kosovo
If somebody placing a mine in a garden and someone stands on it, then the residents are going to think that the whole area is mined. That's what we call nuisance mining, mines placed to hinder people coming back.

When local people find unexploded ordnance, they go to the police, who go to the United Nations, who go to us - and we respond within 20 minutes, day or night. Part of our job from now until 15 December is to train the Kosovo Protection Corps. Once we leave, they'll take over.

I expect we'll be called out quite a lot in the run-up to the Kosovo elections - there are a lot of rallies, a lot of rivalry. Kosovans seem to settle their disputes quite differently here - we quite often get called out to grenade attacks after domestic disputes.

Safety on the job

We haven't had an accident here since April, which shows that the job is getting done. I've never had an accident myself, but I have had problems. In Somalia, I had vehicles hijacked off me, I got taken hostage once and I was shot at on numerous occasions.

Angola 98
A sign warning of mines in Angola
I more or less live off adrenaline on the job - I guess mine clearance workers are a breed of people who just get on with it.

People I know who've had accidents recover remarkably quickly. A friend lost his left leg complete last year, and was on crutches within a week. If you have that frame of mind, knowing that it could happen, you can recover from it very quickly.

What's next for me when this job's finished? I'll go wherever my company, Defence Systems Limited, sends me. There are so many countries that have a mine problem and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.


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