MineTech International has been tasked with clearing 1,300 square kilometres of land in southeast Lebanon. In the space of nine months, MineTech deminers have disarmed and destroyed 23,300 mines, clearing 2.2 million of the total three million square metres of land. As MineTech approaches completion of this first major task in Lebanon, MineTech Project Manager Max Dyck and Team Supervisor Moses Sibanda present their individual perspectives on the challenge
In May 2002, MineTech deployed 10 manual demining teams, 10 mine detection dog (MDD) teams, survey and explosive ordnance specialists, and ground preparation machinery to southern Lebanon. Our task was to clear some 200 minefields from a substantial area of southeast Lebanon stretching south and west from El Qlaiaz in the north down past Kafer Kela to Bayt Yahoun in the south.
Having received confirmation of the project, our teams had deployed and set up a first base camp within 10 days. Accreditation from the project supervisors, the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Center (UN MACC) in Tyre, came just three days later. Our ground clearance machinery then covered 10,000 square metres and our manual deminers cleared 6,500 square metres from the first minefield before the end of day one.
The momentum created by the rapid deployment has been maintained, and by the middle of February, nine months into the project, MineTech had been responsible for disarming and destroying 23,300 of the AP and AT mines cleared by that time. Over the period, we have further strengthened resources, bringing in local deminers—United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanese army personnel trained by MineTech to UN standards to operate as demining units under MineTech management.
The conditions facing the manual deminers are tough, but there are many similarities to other theatres. Summer temperatures are in the upper 40s (Celsius), and in the winter they drop to almost zero. But the real dampers on the effort have been the gale-force winds and whipping rain. The rain, virtually non-stop for several months starting mid-December, has had a direct impact on productivity, keeping the manual demining teams out of the fields during the cloudbursts, and leaving very wet, muddy conditions for them to deal with in between. We have tackled the issue by managing resources as best we can to ensure minimum disruption. Teams have worked the peripheral areas outside of the fences or switched to clearing AT mines during days of heavy downpours, despite the fact that the weather slows the process considerably. During the middle of December, before the rains started and just six months into the project, MineTech’s tally of cleared mines in Lebanon stood at 19,235 mines, but we still reached 22,300 by mid-February, despite two months of wet conditions.
In many of the minefields, the terrain is steep and rocky. It is pretty uncomfortable for the manual deminers and it makes access difficult. The hard surface is difficult to penetrate, so the use of mine-detecting prodders becomes more challenging. Much of the area contains former military outposts and consequently has a high level of metal contamination. On the ground, each piece of metal detected must be treated as if it is a mine until proven otherwise.
What is unique about Lebanon is the density of the minefields; they are probably as dense as any that have been encountered anywhere in the world. Some extend over many kilometres, forming great belts. Many have standard patterns laid in four rows with a mine every 40 centimetres. The majority of the targets have been Israeli No. 4s, but a few tank mines, a mixture of TM 51s, NR 25s, M15s and M6A2s have also been found along with 451 pieces of UXO. The mine density makes it impractical to deploy dog teams safely and effectively, and while machines and dogs have a crucial secondary role to play, virtually all of the mines have been cleared by hand. On the plus side, however, the mines have been laid uniformly in rows with end-of-row markers—not withstanding the occasional rogue mine laid out of line and sequence to catch one somewhere in the middle.
Productivity and Performance
While the manual demining teams have been the primary asset in the actual clearance of the mines, the overall productivity and performance figures achieved reflect the integrated use of all three assets—man, machine and dog. The ability to deploy all three resources has had a major impact on the performance of the manual demining effort. In the majority of fields, we have used all three assets, usually employing manual demining as the primary resource supported by one or both of the secondary resources, which substantially speeds up the clearance process. Both dogs and machines have been used with great effect for area reduction, verifying the existence (or non-existence) of mines in an area and performing a final verification after manual clearance. The dogs have also been used effectively outside the main minefield fences to secure the peripheral areas and areas tasked as “lower threats.” Machines have been used for both ground clearance and verification, but the density of the minefields has meant that as soon as a machine detonates a mine—approximately 30 to date—it is time to pull out and make way for the manual teams. As of mid-February, the machines had cleared 525,913 square metres and the dogs were just short of 1 million square metres, having found 15 mines and many pieces of UXO.
In total, our dogs and machines have reduced the target areas by 68 percent, proving to be a significant factor in how effectively we have been able to deploy our key manual demining teams.
Managing Our Human Assets
While the performance of dogs and machines has been key in helping achieve consistently high performance targets, the manual demining teams on this project are without a doubt the primary resource. Managing this asset safely and effectively has been essential to our success. In this matter it is business as usual, and at MineTech we employ a strategy that extends to every aspect of our activity—from the way we manage safety in the field to the ethos for camp life, which we believe has major bearing on increasing performance and reducing accidents. As with any top professional or sporting team, physical fitness, motivation and mental well-being are as key to the welfare of our manual deminers as the personal protective equipment (PPE) that visibly protects them.
Physical fitness that ensures the teams have the stamina to cope with the physical challenges of the field is essential. In training, the teams have to prove their ability—no exceptions, no favouritism. The fall-out rate is high, and statistics to date show that 75 percent of all recruits will fail. It is a tough selection process, but it ensures that the people at the front end of mine clearance are totally equipped to do their job safely and effectively.
The teams are encouraged to maintain their physical strength as part of camp life through more light-hearted activities such as football and volleyball tournaments. In Lebanon, the heat and conditions have stretched physical tolerance, but at least the minefields themselves have been largely accessible by vehicles. In Kosovo, by contrast, teams had to complete a half-day hike with equipment before establishing a temporary base camp on a mountain top.
Dynamics of Discipline
Physical fitness and stamina are of paramount importance; self-discipline defines a MineTech deminer and is the foundation for overall safety. To achieve it, everyone—management included—lives together in field camps close to target areas. Regular visits from senior management, in particular Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Colonel Dyck, ensure that the leaders lead from the front. The Colonel, like others, joins the men working in the fields and setting the standard from the top.
We make no secret that we run the camps along military lines with high levels of discipline, but it is this discipline that translates into self-discipline, high motivation and most importantly a positive attitude in the field. In addition, our manual deminers work in close teams, developing strong bonds with workmates, which again has important implications on overall performance and field safety.
We all work according to the same standard operating procedures, which cover everything from mine destruction to dress code and include an absolute ban on smoking or alcohol in camp and a 1700 hours camp curfew. It may seem draconian, but the reality is that the men remain healthy, fairly wealthy and employed. It also ensures that no man enters the minefield hung-over, fatigued or under-fed because nobody drinks, all get sufficient rest and all are properly fed by the camp cook. MineTech is not without an accident record but metre for metre, mine for mine, MineTech’s safety record remains continuously high.
Personal Protective Equipment
PPE is the most loathed piece of equipment in the deminer’s kit. Despite the fact that everyone respects the vital importance of wearing this gear, in the baking heat, at plus 40oC, it isn’t all that comfortable. It is, however, extremely effective. Together with PPE manufacturer Security Devices, MineTech has developed an apron and visor that are as user-friendly and as light and effective as any on today’s market. The PPE is manufactured in Zimbabwe to international standards and is now used widely by other international demining organisations. In Lebanon, it has been fully put to the test in two particular prodding incidents, both of which have resulted from the pressure plate tilting to the side, to face the direction from which the deminer then prods. This situation can easily happen if a mine that has lain for a long period of time is disturbed from its original position by the elements or other land movement.
Three such mines have existed in the target areas MineTech has been working on, but the resulting injuries have been minimized due to the effectiveness of the PPE, visor and body apron. On all three occasions, with explosions just 50–60 centimetres from a deminer’s face, fairly minor hand injuries have occurred when, without the PPE, major injuries would have been sustained.
Another safety initiative particularly suitable to Lebanon has been the introduction of rubber knee pads and leather elbow pads, which have been developed specifically for this terrain and are very effective. Their use is a matter of choice for manual deminers. Some find the pads a restriction on manoeuvrability, but in general, they have rebuffed what would otherwise have been many knee and elbow injuries, and as a bonus, have prolonged the life of our field uniforms.
MineTech anticipates it will destroy a further 10,000 mines in the next three months, by which time we will have completed our first major task in Lebanon. Despite the challenges, the initiative has already directly released some 200 square kilometres of land for pasture, agriculture and development—and where farmers now have the confidence to allow animals to graze safely. Many hectares of former agricultural land are already back in cultivation, several quarries have been re-opened and a major pipeline in the Tallusah area has also been re-opened.
At MineTech, we believe that mine action should be seen as a short-term obstacle to development, as opposed to a long-term job opportunity. Understanding this means understanding us. Ignore it and you’ll see us as hard, uncompromising, anti-social and pretty different. Lebanon has been very rewarding, but hard work and the teams’ achievements are impressive. We look forward to further challenges in this theatre.
My Lebanon Experience by Moses Sibanda
Moses Sibanda, 27, has worked with MineTech since leaving school and is now a field supervisor. His experience spans Mozambique, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and now Lebanon.
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