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Meet Helen Gray,

30, from Scotland.

This is her all-women
team in Mozambique—
and they have one
of the most dangerous
jobs in the world

Dynamite words and photographs
By craig stennett
It’s deployment day at the Halo Trust’s and an intense wilting African heat.
compound in Zimpeto district, north Helen Gray, a resourceful Scot brought
Maputo, Mozambique—a day that’s up on an East Lothian farm and now
fondly described in Portuguese, the programme manager for Halo (it stands
national tongue of Mozambique, as the for Hazardous Area Life-Support Or-
day of confusão. Halo is the world’s ganisation) in Mozambique, pulls into
oldest and largest landmine-clearance the compound in her Nissan pickup and
organisation and, today, 15 of 26 highly surveys the scene. What greets her is a
specialised teams working in Maputo blur of activity. Land Rovers and trucks
have just returned from their eight-day are being refuelled, tents and sleeping
leave and are about to embark on three bags are being loaded and stores are
weeks of living and working in one of emptied of food and the essential de-
Mozambique’s remaining 139 minefields. mining kit the teams will need for the
The atmosphere is tense because these three weeks they’ll spend in the field.
men and women work at what is widely After several hours they are ready
acknowledged as one of the world’s for deployment throughout Maputo
most dangerous jobs—de-miner. province and they leave the relative
It’s still the rainy season, but today safety of Halo’s compound.
there’s nothing but brilliant sunshine Helen has just returned from taking
Susan Eckey, deputy director-general
of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, and
her accompanying delegation on a fact-
finding mission in the Halo minefields.
One of the two all-women teams Halo
employs had extended their days in the
field to accommodate the visit and will
now redeploy later in the week.

Halo, a non-profit non-governmental

organisation, has its head office in Dum-
fries, Scotland. It deployed its first
de-mining team in Mozambique on
February 20, 1994, and has now declared
the country’s six northern provinces
mine-free—after exploding more than
100,000 mines—leaving only the south A day in the life: the de-miners
to be made safe. must pack enough provisions to
After finishing her BSc in biology last them for 21 days in the field
and anthropology at Durham University, (left); a typical day starts at
6am (top); clearing a path to the

Helen worked for theseptember

2010Sea Bird
centre and then as an expedition guide minefield itself (above)

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in Peru’s threatened rainforests. Back goes back to the local community, and
in Britain she speculatively sent her CV you can return in a few months and see
to Halo. Her neighbour had told her maize growing or the houses or schools
about the organisation and she’d already that have been built there. The landmine
decided she wanted to work in a hu- problem has gone—for ever. You don’t
manitarian field. get that sort of reward in many jobs.”
Helen has worked for Halo since Learning to be a de-miner is painstak-
2004—when she was just 24—doing ing work. Helen remembers her first
her initial six-month training in Cabo day: “I really wanted to find a mine. For
Delgado, on the northern border of safety reasons, the drill we learn is sys-
Mozambique, in the minefields laid by tematic and repetitive. But, as I’d done
the Portuguese back in the early 1970s, all the training, I didn’t want to find a
metal signal with the detector and then
spend 20 minutes carefully scraping
and excavating my way towards a coke
can! I wanted to find a mine.”
It’s this level of commitment that
allows Helen and her staff to tackle the
mine clearance Mozambique so des-
perately needs. A country that after 20
years of struggle with Portugal faced
an internal civil war between Frelimo
(the Liberation Front of Mozambique),
now the government, and Renamo (the
Left and top:
Mozambican National Resistance party),
the charge and
which was secretly backed by Rhodesia
fuse that will be
and later South Africa. An effective
used to destroy
when the country was fighting for its cease-fire came into force on October
a Russian mine.
independence from Portugal. She then 15, 1992, and it has stuck to this day. Its
Above left: Helen
worked in Angola, but returned to Mo- legacy, however, was 900,000 deaths,
Gray supervising
zambique in January 2008. In February five million displaced persons and an
the delicate work.
last year she was asked to run the coun- estimated 200,000 landmines deployed
Above right: Claudia
try’s operations, with responsibility for by all sides in the conflict.
Matsinhe, de-miner,
all its 370 staff and a budget of £1.8 mil-
is also a single
lion, just over half of what she needs if Leaving the compound Helen joins the
mother with a six-
Mozambique is to hit its 2014 target to road west of Maputo, driving for an
year-old daughter.
become completely mine-free. hour towards the South African border.
Right: this plume of
“My job gives me tremendous We arrive at one of the “equipa de meni-
smoke means that
satisfaction,” Helen says. “It’s brilliant nas” minefields or “girls’ sections”. The
the detonation has

to be able to send de-miners to an unsafe women are working in a minefield

september 2010 near
area to clear the land. That land then the old electricity pylon route. ► been successful

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The ten-strong team has been awake been trained to follow to stay alive. ordnance we discover,” Helen explains
since 4.30am—work starts in the mine- The women wear ballistic visors and as she monitors Onorio’s progress.
fields at first light at 6am, finishing at kevlar flak jackets and systematically “Then we know it’s gone for all time.”
1pm in the afternoon. The working day cover the land inch by inch with metal The two walk slowly into the mine-
is dictated by the need to avoid the worst detectors. Since lapses in concentration field, the safe zones being clearly marked
of the heat. Nevertheless, temperatures could be fatal, they take a ten-minute by red-tipped sticks in the ground. “If
can get into the late 30s C, producing break every hour. you’re inside these markers then you’re
a punishing environment in which The first women’s section was formed safe,” says Helen.
it’s hard to maintain physical strength within Halo in 2007. “The perception They solemnly pass the skeletal re-
and concentration—both crucial for in Mozambique was that de-mining was mains of two individuals whose deaths
de-miners—along with the strict adher- a job done by men,” says Helen. “When in this minefield passed without cere-
ence to all the procedures they have we were recruiting, we clearly stated mony long ago.
that applications were welcome from “They were probably trying to steal
halo icon both women and men, and we found
that many women applied. They’ve done
metal, then stepped on one of the mines
planted here, but managed to crawl off—
incredibly well and some have been only to die here alone. They’re not
promoted through our system.” from this area, so their bodies haven’t
Helen’s mobile is ringing; when she been claimed. We’re deciding with the
answers she’s informed that they’re locals what we should do with them
ready for the destruction of a landmine once we’ve completely cleared this
at Mubobo minefield a mile or so away. area,” she comments.
Mubobo is the most heavily mined area A whistle blows, giving the signal for
remaining in Maputo province. The the whole team in the minefield to with- Domingas Lacrimosa Lina Dias,
Frelimo government laid it during the draw to a safe distance as Onorio lays 28, a Halo supervisor, says: “We
civil war to impede sabotage of the vital the charge. “You always do this part work here to rid our country of
pylons providing the capital, Maputo, alone,” Helen explains. “One man, one mines. I feel proud as a woman to be
with its electricity supply. risk.” A fuse that will burn for five min- doing this job. It was seen as men’s
utes has been chosen, ample time for work, but I am proving otherwise.”

M I K E F O R S T E R / D A I LY M A I L / R E X F E AT U R E S
In January 1997, the last year of her
Section supervisor Onorio Manuel, 22, Onorio to join Helen 100 yards from
life, Princess Diana visited a Halo
meets Helen on our arrival. From the the blast zone—the distance deemed of a mushroom-shaped black plume of
minefield on the outskirts of Huambo
safety of the designated control point, safe for this type of landmine. smoke that pushes its way up into the
City, Angola. The pictures of her
he formally briefs her on the situation The minutes are counted down, then sky as the explosive charge and the mine
visit were seen throughout the world.
in the minefield. After the safety equip- the seconds as the detonation time itself are destroyed. Then it’s all over—
“Diana was visiting the
ment has been put on, Onorio primes approaches. The noise of the bang and in Maputo province there’s one less
International Committee of The
the pentolite explosive charge he needs hits you first, followed by the sight mine to worry about.
Red Cross in Angola when they RD
to destroy a Russian mine they’ve de-
suggested that she should visit one
tected near one of the pylons. This type
of our minefields,” Helen says.
of mine is designed to blow off not just Passion Killer
“She brought fantastic visibility to
a foot, but a whole leg. From a report in the Daily Mail about the Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne:
the need for humanitarian mine
“It’s Halo policy september
to destroy
2010 every “In the week he left his wife for a younger woman, his expenses reveal he claimed
clearance and the issue of mine use.”
mine and each piece of unexploded money for servicing an old boiler.” Submitted by Pam Collins, Coventry

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