A member of the QRDF prods for mines in Sri Lanka.
Escorting an idea along the path from concept to reality
often entails a journey that is ridiculously roundabout, strewn with
obstacles, and complicated by bureaucratic bungling. These tribulations
ensure that only the most original, innovative, useful and timely ideas
make it to the concluding stage: final judgment by the real world.
Approval from this harsh arbiter sets the few truly special ideas apart
from the chaff. Mr. Harry “Murf” McCloy hatched just such a singular idea
and shepherded it dutifully through all its trials, eventually presenting
the world with the QRDF: a unique squad of highly trained, well-equipped
deminers who travel worldwide, responding to emergency demining situations
wherever the need arises. Mr. McCloy now serves as the teams’ Program
Manager, a job he tackles from his position at the U.S. State Department
(DOS). I spoke with Mr. McCloy about the QRDF’s origins, ideology,
deployments and final judgment.
In 1999, the stage was set for a humanitarian disaster in the Balkans. The war in Kosovo had driven a massive number of civilians from their homes, forcing them to seek temporary shelter in sprawling refugee camps. After punishing NATO air strikes convinced Slobodan Milosivec to end his vicious campaign in June, the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) began the arduous trek home, a journey made more difficult by hundreds of thousands of landmines and UXO deposited during the citizens’ absence. Mr. McCloy recalls, “In Kosovo, all of a sudden the war ended, and it was obvious that there were going to be hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding back into dangerous areas. That constitutes a real crisis situation.”
It was a situation the world had seen before, but this
time the outcome would be different. Mr. McCloy had been working since
1998 on plans for a demining force that could respond to just such
emergencies. “I guess you could say I came up with a concept and then set
it up,” he explains, “and that worked so well that it was decided to make
it a full-time thing.” Along with others at the DOS and in Kosovo, Mr.
McCloy hastily assembled a demining squad and put them to work. That first
team of deminers arrived in Kosovo quicker than any others and provided
emergency clearance of heavily traveled roads, clearing a safe path for
the imminent deluge of weary refugees while the longer-term programs
geared up. The squad saved lives and became the template for a permanent
force of deminers now known as the QRDF.
Building on that experience, Mr. McCloy and others in the DOS set about designing a strategy that would give a few demining teams the means to respond to demining crises as epitomized by the Kosovo situation quicker than any previous mobile demining group. The DOS determined that they needed a standing force of deminers who were always on call, able to commence emergency operations anywhere in the world within two weeks of notification.
Next, the DOS had to locate a home base for the team that would satisfy several criteria. After scouting the world, planners swiftly settled on Mozambique. Mr. McCloy detailed the reasoning behind the choice: “Why did we establish the QRDF in Mozambique? Well, we were looking for a country that had a serious mine problem to begin with because we knew the QRDF wasn’t going to be deployed 100 percent of the time. We knew there was going to be a lot of the time when they would not be deployed outside of [their] national boundary.” He added, “Since we were going to be paying for [the force], we wanted there to be work for them to do while they were deployed as well as work for while they weren’t.” An abundance of qualified deminers within the country also simplified the decision. “We had a nice convergence there: you had a country in need and a surplus of trained deminers that would be available immediately, and it would be economical to spin them up and get them ready to go out,” Mr. McCloy concluded.
An experience that Mr. McCloy had while running the U.S. demining program in Kosovo may have solidified the decision to base the QRDF in Mozambique and staff it entirely with Mozambican deminers. He explains, “I first started working with those guys in Bosnia. We needed to bring in some deminers to do some demining of a suspected mass grave. I told them they ought to bring in Mozambicans because they were politically neutral. It was obvious that they weren’t Serb, they weren’t Muslim, they weren’t Croat—they were these guys from Africa. It worked out perfectly, and they did a good job for the International War Crimes Tribunal.”
After answering the what, who and where questions, the DOS
tackled the how. They enlisted demining contractor RONCO’s assistance in
constructing the QRDF. Outlining the DOS’ relationship with RONCO, Mr.
McCloy said, “We turn to them and say, ‘This is what we want. We want a
Quick Reaction Demining Force, we want it so big, we want it to have dogs
and all the other stuff,’ and then they go out and buy the equipment,
build the facilities, screen and hire deminers, and get the dogs ready.”
In short, RONCO did the dirty work necessary to create the QRDF. RONCO
formed four 10-man teams along with eight mine detecting dog (MDD) teams,
each consisting of one dog and one trainer. According to Mr. McCloy,
“These are manual demining teams with MDD capabilities,” but if the
situation requires it, “they are capable of operating with mechanical
equipment.” All are based near Beira, Mozambique, and trained in the
latest demining techniques.
The DOS designed the QRDF for very specific situations and therefore limits its deployment to suitable events. Mr. McCloy explained how the DOS determines the QRDF’s missions: “There are some things that are going on every day in the demining landscape that the normal programs take care of. We look for places where quick demining assistance needs to be applied.” He added, “This program is not designed to cure a country’s demining ills. It’s sort of a brushfire fighter. It’s only there to provide immediate assistance where no other assistance is available.” Living up to the “Q” in QRDF, the force’s deployments generally last three to six months, just enough to “serve as a bridge while the longer-term stuff is getting on the road,” according to Mr. McCloy.
A deminer prepares mines for demolition in Sri Lanka.
There are some requirements that a situation must satisfy before the DOS will deploy the QRDF. For example, the DOS demands that hostilities cease prior to the team’s departure in a bid to ensure the deminers’ safety. “We’re not putting them out there to get killed. They’re not sent in as a peace enforcing entity, but rather to reinforce peace. They’re not there to push people apart; they want to help them get back together,” Mr. McCloy stated. After all, deminers’ jobs are dangerous enough without having to worry about bullets flying overhead or directly at them.
The four teams are each capable of working independently
or in conjunction with one, two or all three other teams, with or without
dogs. Mr. McCloy pointed out the flexibility this arrangement offers,
saying, “We can shoot them all in at once or we can phase them in and out
or rotate them or send them out two and two, three and one.” Rotating the
teams between foreign assignments and their day-to-day tasks around
Mozambique also keeps the men’s morale up. “You can’t just use these guys
like a rag to wipe up the bar, they have to go and see their wives and
kids. That’s one of the reasons we’ve got the QRDF broken up into separate
teams,” he explained.
The QRDF is prepared to deal with all types of UXO, even damaged mines such as this.
Despite the DOS’ best efforts to keep the teams near their families, the QRDF’s job descriptions—respond to emergency demining situations anywhere in the world within two weeks of notification—means the men must keep their passports ready. Since its inception, the DOS has officially deployed QRDF components twice, to Sudan and then Sri Lanka. While battling the heat in Sudan, two teams from the QRDF managed to demine several essential roads “so that the people who were doing the peacekeeping and refugees who were returning could move around freely and do what they had to do,” Mr. McCloy said.
Another situation emerged soon after the Sudan deployment, sending the remaining two QRDF teams to tropical Sri Lanka. The long-simmering conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government has finally cooled off a bit, allowing thousands of refugees their first chance to return home in years. As in Kosovo, however, thousands of mines littered their path, a perfect opportunity for the QRDF to show its stuff. “In Sri Lanka they’re working for the government, but they are demining in the government occupied areas where a large portion of the Tamil population is. So with the assistance of the government they’re conducting demining so the refugees can come and occupy the homes that they did before the war kicked them out of there,” Mr. McCloy announced. As in Kosovo, “they’re there to try and pave the way for a heavy influx of refugees now that peace has broken out.”
While all four teams were occupied, a new and very different emergency situation materialized in Nigeria. An ammunition depot exploded in Lagos, sending showers of UXO and red-hot shrapnel raining down on a nearby residential district. The DOS quickly scrambled an ad-hoc team of deminers from Mozambique, since “it was a situation that certainly could be taken care of on an emergency basis by the resources we had available to us,” because the infrastructure was already in place, according to Mr. McCloy. The new teams, though operating in the same capacity as the QRDF and under the direction of the DOS, will not be maintained permanently.
The mission in Sudan ended after five weeks, and the DOS
foresees an in-country stay of at least three months for the Sri Lankan
and Nigerian projects. With one job under their belts and two others well
underway, I asked Mr. McCloy to rate the teams’ performance so far. He
said the only problems encountered have involved “the simple stuff, like
how to import explosives into a country, stuff like that.” He continued,
“There’s nothing out there that’s been a showstopper, as long as you
understand that you don’t conduct each QRDF deployment based on what you
did the last time. Basically, most problems can be taken care of with
planning and foresight.”
With no major problems as of yet, Mr. McCloy eagerly shared his opinion of the QRDF’s performance to date. “The way you judge the success of an operation is by determining if it achieves what you sent it in there to do. Like in Nigeria, they sent it in to clear up all that exploded ammunition, and the fact is that we’re getting rid of a lot of it,” he said. Such success has earned the QRDF commendations from officials in both the Nigerian and Sri Lankan governments. In Nigeria, Mr. McCloy reports that “the government is saying, ‘We wish you could stay longer,’ so that says we’re being successful down there.” And the “Sri Lankan government loves it…because there was a peace process that needed to be reinforced, and demining can do that,” he continued.
Dogs play an integral role in the QRDF.
It appears as though the QRDF has fulfilled its mission
more successfully than anyone imagined except, perhaps, for Mr. McCloy
himself. He believes that “this thing has been really worthwhile. It’s
worked well and I think it’s going to get better.” He pointed out that
what makes the QRDF such an achievement is its uniqueness, since “once
you’ve got [the deminers] together and you give them supervision, you’ve
got the world’s only QRDF.” No other group of deminers on earth can
respond to a demining-related crisis as quickly or deal with an emergency
as comprehensively as the QRDF. Whether clearing the way for floods of
refugees tantalized by the promise of peace or responding to some
unforeseeable disaster, the men of the QRDF are in a position to save
people’s lives who would previously have been out of luck. Mr. McCloy
concluded, “This is an idea whose time has come and the U.S. has done it.
It’s the actuality of what’s available and how quickly it can be brought
to bear on real demining crisis situations. That’s what’s really neat
about the QRDF.”
Mr. Harry “Murf” McCloy
The DOS Humanitarian Demining Program
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