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Unsung Hero: Johan van der Merwe

Updated Wednesday, 18-Sep-2013 09:20:01 EDT

Personal experiences with landmines and 10 years of working in mine action have shaped Johan van der Merwe's life and views on what needs to be done to create a safer world.

Working as a technical advisor for the United Nations Office for Project Services, Johan (JJ) van der Merwe has gone above and beyond the call of duty. He has been influential in assisting the United Nations establish and implement mine action programs worldwide.

Van der Merwe in northern Iraq for the demining of a power grid.

Van der Merwe's work as a combat engineer with the South African Defense Force led him to mine action. He was trained in demolition, mine/countermine warfare, explosive ordnance disposal and improvised explosive devices disposal.

"I served in both northern Namibia and southern Angola, and while serving there, one of my assignments was to investigate many of the mine incidents involving both military personnel and civilians," he says. This experience and others like it led him to dedicate his life to humanitarian mine action.

One of the most traumatizing—and influential—events in van der Merwe's life was his involvement in two demining accidents. "In the one incident in 1981, I sustained 55-percent second- and third-degree-burn wounds after the vehicle I was traveling in detonated two anti-tank mines and caught on fire," he says. He was lucky—the other three men affected by the explosion in the vehicle died, leaving van der Merwe the sole survivor of the accident.

"I can just remember looking down—you have to wear a safety belt—and I could remember seeing the sign to release the buckle. I pressed it and jumped outside and my troops were on me to put the fire out."

Although van der Merwe survived the accident, his near-death experience landed him in the hospital, where he spent three months in intensive care recovering from his injuries. This experience did not deter him from his military career.

"I wasn't afraid to go back and continue the work," he says. "Even though I remained in the army after the incident, I realized the terrible destructiveness of landmines and the need to abolish them."

Unfortunately, van der Merwe's brushes with death were not over. In 1984, he was involved in another landmine accident while traveling in southern Angola during a military campaign carried out by the South African Defense Force. Similar to the prior incident, he was traveling in a vehicle when it passed over a mine; this time, none of the occupants of the vehicle received any physical injuries.

After experiencing two landmine accidents, van der Merwe was determined to become active in humanitarian mine action. He retired from the army and later sent his résumé to the United Nations. In 1996, he was offered a position by the Department of Humanitarian Affairs as deputy program manager of the U.N. Mine Action Programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "I arrived in Sarajevo in September 1996, and [immediately] took up my assignment with the rest of the mine action team," van der Merwe says.

Under the direction of Program Manager Georges Focsaneanu, van der Merwe felt privileged because not only did van der Merwe and Focsaneanu become good friends, "but he also introduced me to humanitarian mine action," he says. After Focsaneanu stepped down as program manager in July 1997, van der Merwe took his place until mid-March 1998.

Focsaneanu has only praise for his successor. "I have known [van der Merwe] for years and he has always been willing to assist and help anyone. He has put all his efforts and heart and soul into addressing the problem of landmines and the affected people," Focsaneanu says. "I can think of no one who has assisted more people and programs in the field of mine action."

Van der Merwe's next endeavor brought him to New York City. There he became the second founding member of the mine action team in the United Nations Development Programme. Working with Leon Terblanche, he strived to establish mine action in UNDP as a new sector of development work. "I missed working directly with the field, and when the mine action technical advisor position in UNOPS became vacant, I applied for the position," he says.

Van der Merwe visiting a Norwegian People's Aid site in Kosovo.

Van der Merwe joined the United Nations Office of Project Services mine action team in 1998, which was initially only involved in a few mine action programs. The team soon "grew to a very professional, dedicated group of portfolio managers, working mainly with the United Nations Mine Action Service, UNDP and the U.N. Office of the Iraq Programme," van der Merwe says. He continues in this role today.

Van der Merwe's job entails a number of responsibilities, but he remains willing to aid other mine action practitioners and managers. "My role as the technical advisor is to assist the mine action portfolio managers with all technical issues related to organizational structures, job descriptions, interpretation of résumés, specifications for specialized equipment, statements of work for tenders and contracts for services," he explains. "I also provide ongoing technical advice to the U.N. program managers and project staff in the field."

By working closely with colleagues in UNMAS and UNDP, van der Merwe states, "I have been fortunate to be involved in most of the major advances that have been made in mine action since 1996. These have included both rounds of preparing the International Mine Action Standards, assisting with the design and initial UNOPS implementation of the Adopt-A-Minefield® initiative, participating in the development of the U.N. Mine Action Strategy and the Framework for Rapid Response, and helping many other working groups carry out mine action research."

Working for the United Nations, van der Merwe hopes to continue the fight against landmines and uphold the standards of past and current mine action practitioners. "In my current position, I try to represent the many thousands of international and local mine action practitioners out there," he says. "As a member of the IMAS Review Board, I try to ensure that the standards are written in such a way that they provide good guidance for those that have to work with them and that they decrease the risk of engaging in mine action activities." Also, when creating a statement of work, van der Merwe tries to make it easier for firms and non-governmental organizations the ability to get the job done safely and easily. "It is not my intention to create a contractual nightmare that is impossible to implement."

According to van der Merwe, global mine action is due for a change in strategy and methods. "I would like to see a more unified, smart and creative approach to dealing with the global mine problem," he says. "Our approach to dealing with the problem has not changed very much over the past few years. The recipe has been the same: establish a mine action authority, provide it with the information management system for mine action and provide technical advisors, etc." However, van der Merwe feels that the mine action community should deal with each country differently depending on the magnitude of its mine problem. "Countries with a smaller problem," he says, "could be assisted very quickly to rid themselves of the highly contaminated areas through the contracting of international firms or NGOs to do the clearance." He adds, "The solution is not always to establish a full-fledged program with permanent local capacities. For those countries with larger landmine problems, we will need to spend more time in capacity-building of both government institutions and local operational capacities and will need sustained long-term funding to do so."

Additionally, van der Merwe has a number of suggestions that he feels could improve mine action. First, he says, "I would like to see a greater cohesion among all stakeholders to work toward a common mine action goal. We need to set aside individual aspirations, political goals and decide what we want to achieve over the next five years." He also suggests the mine action community design response plans instead of using template solutions that are applied from country to country. Another important activity would be to continue the training of mine action practitioners at all levels.

Although there is much to be improved upon, van der Merwe feels he and other mine action practitioners have made a lot of progress and helped to pave the way for future success.

Van der Merwe's experiences in mine action over the last 10 years have given him a wealth of unforgettable memories. Meeting celebrities and public figures was not something he expected when he entered the mine action field. "An event that will always stand out as being very special," van der Merwe says, "was hosting the visit of Princess Diana to the U.N. Mine Action Centre in Sarajevo in August 1997. What struck me about her was her knowledge of the subject and her dedication to raising public awareness about the landmine problem."

Van der Merwe also feels blessed to have had the opportunity to travel the world. "[I have] been able to visit approximately 20 mine-affected countries, interact with the local people and learn from their experiences," he reflects.

*All photos courtesy of JJ van der Merwe.

Contact Information

Charlotte Dombrower
Mine Action Information Center

Johan van der Merwe
UNOPS, Mine Action Advisor
405 Lexington Ave
Chrysler Building, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10174
Tel: +1 212 457 1283