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Unsung Hero: Chris North

Updated Wednesday, 18-Sep-2013 09:19:59 EDT

Chris North works tirelessly to make a difference in the world by training others in explosive ordnance disposal. In this interview, he offers a few words of advice to the mine action community.

In many of his colleagues' eyes, Chris North is someone who is determined to fight for mine action and make changes, whether those changes are through managing projects or expressive poetry. His unwavering dedication to mine action makes North a hero in his field.


Chris North and his colleagues locating and identifying dummy SA3 missiles in Baghdad.
Photo courtesy of Chris North

Working as a senior non-commissioned officer in the British army and an explosive ordnance disposal operator for 20 years, North spent most of that time with the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Regiment. Through this regiment, North taught bomb disposal to reservist soldiers. When a former officer and friend mentioned humanitarian mine action to North, the concept appealed to his sense of adventure. North could not escape his passion for mine action and decided to leave the army to try his hand at humanitarian mine action. "I [had] moved to a small town on the west coast of Scotland where there were not many employment possibilities; a friend of mine prompted me to apply for a job with Handicap International-France and the rest is history," he says.

Over the years, North worked in different countries on a variety of projects. First, he visited the Mozambique dog training and accreditation program, which uses dogs and mechanical assets alongside manual deminers. North used information gained there to help establish the HI France Mine Detection Dog Team programs in Bosnia and Kosovo. He then spent about three years establishing a clearance capacity for HI in Djakova and training a 30-person local demining and explosive ordnance disposal team. North also taught EOD to other agencies, non-governmental organizations and commercial companies, and to personnel from the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Center in Pristina. He also led a team to train and supervise over 100 Kosovo Protection Corps workers in battle area clearance, EOD and demining.

North embarked on numerous humanitarian mine action missions and tasks with HI, including teaching a humanitarian mine clearance managers' course to the Swedish Rescue Services Agency. His next mission was a trip to Angola, where he was responsible for conducting research on mine clearance opportunities and collaborating with other agencies in Angola. Upon completion of this mission, North took a position in Iraq heading the initial deployment of Handicap International personnel into the country.

Wanting to remain in the country, North was forced to find another job when HI withdrew from Iraq in April 2004. "I took a position in Iraq with RONCO, where I was part of the national QA/QC team," says North. The quality assurance/quality control team was short-lived in Iraq. RONCO, an international humanitarian mine action consulting corporation, redeployed North to Sudan. Since then, he has returned to Iraq to head a training school for Iraqi army EOD companies up to level three EOD1—a total of 650 men in the first year.


Discovery of a bomb case stockpile in a large ammunition depot north of Baghdad.
Photo by Colin King

Each new task and location has offered North heightened knowledge and experiences. He not only gets satisfaction from changing the lives of others affected by landmines, but he is also aware that his involvement in humanitarian mine action has affected him personally and molded him into the individual he is today. "I feel I have grown from a relatively selfish person, concerned only with my life and my family's welfare, into a more open and aware guy who cares about the plight of the people affected by war and by post-war difficulties," he admits. "I still need to work in this trade to earn a living, but the money is not the most important thing. There has to be an element of doing good, feeling good about doing good, and I have to feel that what I am involved in is worthwhile."

One of the ways North deals with the harsh realities of mine action is by expressing his feelings through poetry. His mine-related poetry has been published in four books: Risky Business, War Trade, Victory and Distant Shore.2

"Initially, my poetry was purely a means by which I was able to cope with some disturbing episodes and encounters in my life," says North. The poems not only help North survive his personal struggles with the landmine plight, but many of them also help others in the field know that they are not alone. "Some of the poems have been used in documentary films and I hope they have helped to convey to others some of the realities of the mine problem in the world," explains North. Some of his poems also have been used by charities and other organizations as fundraising publicity materials, he adds.

While North has seen mine action as a positive influence in his life and in the world, he agrees there is much to be improved upon. "Without too much political influence, the drive behind the prioritization structure needs to be balanced between purely humanitarian need and national emergency infrastructure requirements," North says. "International donors should coordinate their efforts to be [better] able to direct global demining assets to as many affected regions as possible," he suggests. Safety continues to be an important issue in demining. "Safety is always in need of improvement," North says. "Managers of programs should feel comfortable in reporting all clearance accidents for the benefit of the demining community and not be scared of adverse comment."


Searching areas of Baghdad near the river to identify discarded weapons for disposal.
Photo courtesy of Chris North

North also feels obliged to offer advice to others who may be new to humanitarian demining. "Demining is slow; it takes time—a long time—to clear land to an acceptable standard," he states. "Don't expect mines to be cleared from a country in a few weeks, months or years. Think decades, and plan ahead. [Also, be sure to consider] demining costs and demining equipment costs; it is a very expensive game. Funding needs to be sustainable—it is better to build and sustain a small capacity rather than build a large capacity that cannot work after a year or so due to lack of funds," he advises.

One of the perks of working in mine action is traveling all over the world and getting to know a wide variety of people and cultures. Through his experiences, North found there are a few inherent characteristics evident in all the cultures he encountered: "faith, hope and durability." He explains, "There is always a great feeling of hope, regardless of the hardship being suffered. Once things start to change, once aid begins, then hope flourishes. All people who have apparently lost everything—who are living without so much—just seem to be able to pick themselves up, rebuild their lives and regain some level of quality of life. This is a truly admirable trait that is evident worldwide."

With people like Chris North to lead the path to change, it's no wonder those who suffer from the aftereffects of war are hopeful.

Endnotes

  1. To meet EOD level-three qualifications, a deminer must have specific training in disposal by detonation of larger UXO and artillery ammunition up to 240 mm. A level-three deminer should be qualified to render safe UXO for safe removal from the demining worksite and to undertake their final destruction.
  2. These books can only be purchased by contacting Chris North at Chrisnorth69@hotmail.com or through his publisher, The Old Pier House.

Contact Information

Charlotte Dombrower
MAIC
E-mail: maic@jmu.edu

Chris North
RONCO Task Leader Iraq Army BD School
The Old Pier House
Toward, Dunoon
Argyll PA23 7UB
Scotland
Tel: +44 1369 870 217
E-mail: Chrisnorth69@hotmail.com