“This is not something you can do if you aren’t passionate about it,” says Jonathan Matambo, Handicap International’s demining dog handler in Senegal. Jonathan and his two mine-detecting dogs, Katja and Rex, are part of a 14-member Handicap International demining team working to clear landmines in Casamance, a region plagued by decades of civil conflict.
Jonathan brings Katja, a nine-year-old Belgian Shepherd, to a practice field for training. His gestures are very precise. Pausing in front of the landmine-warning tape, a movement of his arms tells her to get ready. Then Jonathan gives the command to begin. Katja carefully sniffs the 20 square meter patch of land, searching for signs of explosives.
Jonathan never takes his eyes off her: “It is really important that Katja checks the test area each morning before going to work in real mine fields,” he says. “This way I can observe her physical condition, concentration level, and whether there are any external factors interfering, like the wind or noise in the distance. She has to be on her game.”
Handicap International uses explosive detection dogs because they have three major advantages over manual detection with metal detectors: They can cover ground three times more quickly than humans, they can detect landmines that are not made of metal, and they can differentiate between explosive devices and other pieces metal in the ground.
Jonathan and the dogs work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. The dogs rotate on duty every hour. Once one dog has inspected an area, the second dog goes over the same area to ensure that the job has been done properly. A human deminer always watches the team, and, when an explosive is detected, moves in to place to clear the object.
At the end of a day clearing mines, Jonathan walks and grooms his dogs. “I have to be very careful to keep my dogs at ease, and make sure they are not stressed,” says Jonathan. “Katja and Rex are like a second family for me when I am away from my own family. We do need to maintain a professional relationship, however. These dogs are not pets, they have a serious job to do, and so I have to keep my authority.”
Jonathan works to support his wife and three children at home in Zimbabwe. “I’m far from my family, that’s true, but I love this life—traveling, experiencing new countries, working with dogs. My family knows this is important work, so they support what I do. When I go home, I spend all my time with them. Nothing else matters.”
Jonathan began clearing mines when he was 20 years old, joining the company Mondial K9 Services, a South African mine-clearing company. “I wanted a job that involved some physical work and one that also had a degree of risk,” he says. “I also wanted to make people’s lives safer.” His first mission was to southern Lebanon: “I found my first landmine there. It was so exciting, I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to this profession.”
Since then Jonathan has worked in ten countries, including Afghanistan, South Sudan, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was his first mission with Handicap International. He and his dogs have found nearly 100 mines.
‘I don’t like this job, I love it,’ he says.