Yesterday, on the eve of World Humanitarian Day, I was at a memorial service in London to honour British humanitarian aid workers who died in the service of the world’s most desperate people.
As the CEO of what is globally the largest humanitarian mine clearance organisation, I am humbled by the number of men and women deminers around the world who dedicate themselves to the painstaking work of detecting and removing landmines. Like others in the sector, we have lost friends of all nationalities. It was a privilege to pay tribute to HALO’s fallen British comrades, Timothy Goggs GM and Julian Gregson, alongside their families in Westminster Abbey. Timothy and Julian were both dedicated humanitarians, who were committed to improving the lives of those in need. Both men died as a result of injuries sustained in 1992 when they tried to open up a road to an Afghan village that was cut off by mines. We remembered them with gratitude and great fondness. We also remembered HALO’s co-founder Colin Mitchell, who died after a long and distinguished career in mine clearance in 1996.
While the fatality rate in the demining sector is kept mercifully low through a strict safety regime, there is no denying that clearing minefields is a potentially lethal occupation. Whether in the hills of Colombia, the dusty plains of Angola or the rice fields and forests of Cambodia, the terrain in which mines and other munitions are buried makes for arduous and dangerous work. Simply living and working in fragile states puts deminers at risk of both random and targeted violence. Indeed, shortly before last Christmas, two HALO deminers, Noorullah and Juma Khan, were ambushed in Afghanistan and shot dead by gunmen. We honour their sacrifice and that of all humanitarian workers who have lost their lives working to rebuild nations after war.
Today is also an opportunity to celebrate humanitarians who continue to bring daily relief to millions of people in some of the world’s most dangerous and challenging places. So, on World Humanitarian Day, I would like to thank all of HALO’s deminers for their dedication and sacrifice.
Humanitarian demining is demanding work and rarely offers swift reward. Indeed our deminers often work in countries that have long ago left the headlines. Nearly twenty years after Princess Diana’s visit to Angola, HALO, MAG and our partners at Handicap International and Norwegian’s People’s Aid continue to employ hundreds of Angolan deminers. Yet despite the international focus on the Angolan mine tragedy in 1997, we estimate that Angola will not be mine-free until 2025 at the earliest. Likewise, seven years after the end of hostilities between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers, the clearance of landmines and other explosive debris there is unlikely to be complete for some time. So we give particular thanks to those of you working tirelessly on behalf of people who may feel the world has forgotten them.
Today is also an opportunity to reflect on how anybody and everybody can become a humanitarian, regardless of their colour, creed or background. Between us, HALO, MAG and other demining operators have a workforce of dozens of different nationalities and the only pre-requisite for the job is a commitment to humanity. The simple appeal of mine clearance is that it can unite formerly divided communities with a common goal: getting mines out of the ground, for the good of all humanity, present and future. Today, deminers around the world – from Afghanistan to Kosovo, from Myanmar to Zimbabwe - stand together in remembrance of our fallen comrades in pursuit of a mine free world.