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Making us safe behind the lines.

Byline: Patrick Dewhurst

THE FIRST thing you notice when you cross the Green Line is the wildlife. Uninhabited since 1974, small woods teem with birds and the fields are already a lush green after the rains.

I am heading out into the buffer zone near Yeri just outside of Nicosia with Simon Porter, head of the Mine Action Service. Since the organisation began demining in 2004, they have removed some 15,200 mines and released over 7.5 square kilometres of land.

Porter talks me through the set up. "There are 71 mine fields in the buffer zone and so far we have cleared 56 of them. We are working on two now and we hope to finish within a year. Our mandate is to support UNFICYP; so after we have cleared the remaining 15 or so fields, we will either go home or continue to give assistance."

As we drive further into the buffer zone, it becomes clear that the demining is not just about general safety for the population - many of the former mine-fields have been restored to agricultural land. "We normally return the land to farmers within a few days of clearing the area."

The first stop is the field operations centre, where Jerry Barlow, Project Manager for the G4 Ordnance Management (who do the actual mine clearance and disposal), briefs me on the work being done in the two fields.

Around the walls of the Ops tent are a series of maps showing the location of the mines. "We have 48 men here, divided into four teams of eight deminers, a supervisor, medic and a driver," said Barlow.

He explained how Cyprus is fortunate that both the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish military kept professional and accurate records of the type and location of every mine they laid.

To clear a minefield, deminers begin by clearing across the known mine area, then the space is divided into 25 metre by one metre strips and the painstaking process of finding, marking and removing the mines begins. The effort is hampered by metal contamination, migration of mines and booby traps.

"We know from the records that [in this field] 10 are booby trapped with anti-lift devices. There is also lots contamination in the area. For example a ring pull from a coke can give the same signal as a mine," he said.

Barlow points to one map, a patchwork of red white and yellow squares and dashes. "In 27 operational days we have removed 29 M14s, 200 shoe box mines and 100 Bounding mines." The last of these is perhaps the most sinister; when the mine is disturbed, the explosive jumps to chest height before exploding.

Since the tragic death of a Mozambican deminer, Femisberto Novele, last month, de-miners only remove the smaller anti-personnel mines, leaving anti-tank mines to be destroyed in situ. The recent accident occurred when the mine flipped over during its removal. "We can't know for sure why that mine went off. One theory is that heat over the years caused the explosive to 'sweat' and spread throughout the mine, making it much more sensitive," Porter said.

After the briefing it's time to don the protective apron and helmet and visit the field. I try to forget the warning sticker on my helmet "For single blast use only" and pay attention to Barlow's safety briefing. "Don't stray off the picketed path, and don't kick anything."

The protective kit is heavy, and must be unimaginably hot in summer months. The tools of the job are surprisingly low-tech; metal detectors are used to find the mine, then basic gardening tools are used to scrape away, inch by inch, the dirt to expose the mine.

When we get to the minefield, neat rows of the ominous looking anti-tank mines are marked out. "One of those will completely destroy a Range Rover and throw it tens of metres," Porter tells me later.Aa

I am shown each antipersonnel mine in turn, from the 'bounders' to the M14, a seemingly innocuous device barely larger than a golf ball. "These are designed to wound," explained Barlow.

After the tour we set off with the Turkish Cypriot Military Observer, Ahmet, to the second field to watch the detonation of the anti-tank mines.

We pull up a safe distance from the field and step into the sunshine. All is quiet, save for the whir of a far off tractor and an occasional radio update. While we wait I ask Porter about working conditions for the deminers.

"De-miners are paid e1/41000 per month and team leaders e1/41300. They also have insurance, food and accommodation included. Most of the teams here are from Zimbabwe or Mozambique, so the salary here can be 50 times the average at home."

Asked about the dangers of the job, he explains that "within the community the risks are well understood and accepted".

"They also know that there is a greater risk of dying on the roads than from a mine." He added that most of the deminers in Cyprus were highly skilled and experienced, having been in the business for over 10 years. "They are really quick at the job too."

The call comes through on the radio and the count begins. In moments a series of explosions tear through the countryside; even at 500 metres the blast shakes our ribs. "There are nine mines in each explosion, which is over 100KG TNT," said Barlow.

As we leave the buffer zone, Porter described the progress Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot forces have made in working together, which is perhaps a greater achievement than the restoration of agricultural land.

"At first both sides were very wary and it took time to build trust. Now the two military liaisons, who have been with us from the start, share offices with us and we have a really good working relationship. The Turkish forces have also been very cooperative, even providing explosives to destroy the mines.

"We hope that the Cyprus Government will ask us to clear the minefields outside the buffer zone. There is a lot of support and respect for what the deminers do," he said, citing how after the accident, all the proceeds from the November 5 bonfire night event on the UN base went to Novele's family.

In the ten years since the UN convention on the prohibition of use of land mines, over 41 million anti-personnel mines have been destroyed around the world. Mine action currently works on 300 projects throughout the world, which include clearance and marking of hazardous areas, mine risk education, victim assistance, destruction of stockpiled landmines, and advocacy for international agreements related to landmines and explosive remnants of war.

"With more EU funding Cyprus could be mine free in a few years," Porter added.

Copyright Cyprus Mail 2009

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Date:Nov 29, 2009
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