Present in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for almost 20 years, Handicap International recently began a new demining initiative in the country’s Orientale and Maniema provinces. These provinces are heavily contaminated by mines and other explosive remnants—the legacy of decades of war. The first anti-personnel mines were laid in 1960, when the country achieved independence, which was swiftly followed by a war of secession. The situation worsened after 1996, when the country was ravaged by armed conflict and militias laid more mines and other explosives.
Since December 2013, Handicap International has cleared more than 36,000 square meters of land. Before teams of deminers and explosive-sniffing German Shepherds go to work on a mine field, an armored mine-clearance machine does an initial sweep of the area. The 36-ton MineWolf machine, which is controlled remotely and can withstand the blast of a landmine, clears vegetation and tills the top layer of soil. This makes it much easier for the dog demining teams to locate still-hidden explosives.
The dogs have been trained to recognize the smell of explosives. Because of the high concentration of metal dust in soil, metal detectors often pick up false signals. Dogs, who use their keen sense of smell to detect explosive powder, help to address this problem. The dogs stop in their tracks at the slightest hint of explosives. Human deminers then probe the area and remove the identified objects. Strict safety procedures are followed to prevent accidents, but a medical team is always on hand to intervene if an injury occurs.
Although this demining project has only just began, Handicap International has extensive experience using machines, mine-sniffing dogs, and human deminers in other countries such as Mozambique. Employed together, all three demining methods allow the organization to make rapid progress. In fact, teams have clearing more than 12 million square meters of contaminated land since 2007.
“Dogs, people, and machines do very different jobs, but together they produce great results,” says Adérito Ismaël, the head of Handicap International’s demining operations in Mozambique.