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A day in the life of HI’s deminers


Armed violence reduction | Senegal | PUBLISHED ON February 20th 2024
Three deminers and a female deminer in protective gear stand on a dirt track, surrounded by lush vegetation.

The HI demining team in Senegal, waiting to start work; | © A. Faye / HI

Slip into the protective clothing of HI's deminers in Senegal, and come and spend a day with them in the field.

Up at dawn

We start very early in the morning so that we can finish before the temperatures become too torrid. When you live in Casamance, the heat and humidity are pervasive, and demining under the blazing sun is no picnic. First stop, the HI office. This is where we load all the material we need onto the vehicles - equipment, tools, first aid kits and maps. Then we all climb aboard and the convoy sets off in the first light of day.

To reach Kouring, a village some thirty kilometres southeast of Ziguinchor, we have to drive for a good forty minutes. The last five kilometres are along a rough track riddled with potholes. Casamance still has many hazardous areas, contaminated by explosive devices. And, on top of the risks of the job, until recently there was the threat of people or armed groups. To protect us from incidents like this, HI takes all necessary measures to guarantee our safety.

The manual demining team goes to the work area. © A. Faye / HIOn arrival, everyone gets busy unloading the cars and setting up camp; a merry dance begins, setting up tables and chairs under the trees, bringing out the tracking charts and hanging up the maps. This is also an opportunity for us to grab a coffee and a doughnut in preparation for the long day ahead. Then the serious stuff starts: the team leader reminds everyone of the context, the day's objectives and puts us into teams for the day.

Manual demining: a painstaking task

It's only 8.30am, but it's already over thirty degrees. To work safely, we have to wear protective equipment weighing around ten kilos! Once protected from head to toe, we leave the pleasant shade of the trees and walk under the scorching sun to the zone to be cleared today.

Coffee break with colleagues. © A. Faye / HIIn Kouring, HI’s teams are carrying out a full excavation of the roads at a commercial crossroads in the heart of the region, which the threat of mines has made unsafe for use. In all, HI’s teams will be making some 3,500 m² of strategic routes safe for the population. This means checking every square centimetre of land.

We work in pairs: in turn, we kneel down in our work corridor, which is around 1 m wide, and begin carefully removing the vegetation and dead leaves covering the ground. Then it's time for the probe, which we insert every 2 cm to palm-height. Then, using a small shovel, we remove the portion of earth that has been probed... and repeat the process a few centimetres further along.

After 30 minutes, it’s time to change over, and a supervisor walks along the corridors to check that everything is being done according to the rules and protocols and make sure everyone stays safe

Mechanical demining: the precious help of a machine

The digger plows ahead to bring the explosive devices to the surface. © A. Stachurski / HIAfter a few rotations, it's time for a break: we retreat to the rest area where we can get out of our protective gear and relax in the shade of the trees. It's time for a coffee or a cold lemonade, shared between colleagues. We chat, rest and recuperate. Then it's time to get dressed again and get back to work. In Senegal, HI also uses a digger for mechanical mine clearance.

The machine is controlled remotely and equipped with a tiller. It ploughs the ground and detonates or raises any explosive devices to the surface where we can defuse them. It can cover between 300 and 1,800 m² per hour and is invaluable in Casamance to ensure the safety of deminers against the presence of undetectable mines. In a zone where the dense vegetation can present real obstacles to manual mine clearance, it also enables us to keep a safe distance from potential threats such as snakes, ants and scorpions.

Destruction of a rocket head

Abdourahmane Ba, head of operations, and Idrissa Manga, deminer and community liaison officer, preparing to destroy the rocket head. © A. Faye / HISuddenly, a call goes out to all the teams: a colleague has found a suspicious device. While the team leader goes to the site to identify the object and secure the corridor, we retreat to the rest area. The information is quickly confirmed: it's a rocket head and the decision is taken to destroy it on the spot.

But first, the villagers have to be warned and the area secured. The community liaison officers sets off to warn the villagers to keep a safe distance. The deputy chief of the village comes to check on the presence of the device and its destruction, in order to inform the rest of the villagers.

In the meantime, we set up the equipment needed to detonate the rocket head safely. We place bags filled with earth around and on top of it, unwind a cable several hundred metres long and link the rocket head to a detonator. The medical team is positioned at the entrance to the safety perimeter, ready to intervene if necessary.

Nurses Amadou Diallo and Alpha Sané are positioned at the entrance to the security perimeter, ready to intervene. © A. Faye / HIShortly before the detonation, the final checks are carried out and the final safety instructions are broadcast over a loudspeaker, warning anyone still in the area to keep clear. Then, at the appointed time, a colleague presses the detonator. Barely a second passes before the earth shakes and we hear a loud "boom". That's it – the rocket head has been destroyed. A small team heads off to check that there are no dangerous fragments remaining.

Each explosive device destroyed is one less threat for the inhabitants. Since work began in July 2023, our teams have destroyed 15 explosive devices and cleared 3,407 m² of land.

A well-earned rest at the end of the day

Debriefing in the living area Kouring. © A. Faye / HIMid-afternoon, the team leader brings us all together for a debriefing. He reviews the day's progress and outlines the next steps. Then it's time pack up and put away the tables, chairs and maps until tomorrow. Once we’ve cleared the rest area, the convoy head back to Ziguinchor, where we’ll gather our strength for the next day.

Sometimes we set up base camps a few kilometres away from a clearance site. This saves precious time by avoiding long journeys to and from the city. But it also means that we spend three weeks away from home. The strength of our teams comes from the bonds of trust and solidarity forged over time. We're a real family and we know that we can count on each other’s unfailing support.

Senegal estimates the extent of contamination linked to the conflict in Casamance at 1,200,000 m² of land, spread over five departments. In May 2022, HI relaunched its demining operations in Casamance, where the organisation had already cleared more than 900,000 m² of land since 1996. HI's current two projects, ARC and BUZA, will clear 800,000 m² of land by 2025, helping to restore security and socio-economic prosperity to communities in the Ziguinchor and Sédhiou regions. These projects are funded by the European Union and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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