Professor Claudio Paoloni and Professor John Quinton took a trip to Croatia earlier this month to explore the dangerous world of humanitarian landmine removal. Here, John describes their trip.
The field looks like any other in this agricultural area of Croatia, until you look more closely and see that that the men working there are wearing bullet proof vests, helmets and slowly sweeping the surface with metal detectors: one false step and the consequences could be terminal. This is no ordinary farm.
There are approximately 60,000 land mines still to be removed from Croatia’s soil, spread over an estimated 550 Km2. That’s half the number that was planted during the Balkan war in the early 1990s, but it still represents a deadly legacy: to date there have been 1,350 land mine incidents in Croatia, resulting in 1,950 injuries and 511 deaths.
This month, together with my colleague Claudio Paoloni from our Department of Engineering, and a group of UK scientists, I saw first-hand the painstaking and dangerous work being undertaken every day to make the ground safe again.
In May 2014, Sir Bobby Charlton’s charity Find A Better Way announced its second £1million challenge in conjunction with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to find novel ways of detection for humanitarian demining. Along with other UK scientists, the proposal by Claudio and myself has been shortlisted for development and so we travelled to Croatia as a guests of ‘Find a better way’ and the Croatian Mine Action Centre (Cromac). The trip would support our research proposal exploring new ways of detecting land mines and hammer home just how important this work is. And yes, Sir Bobby came along too.
Demining is a complex and dangerous business, primarily because mines come in so many shapes and sizes and are made from a wide range of materials. Gone are the days when a mine would be made of a big lump of metal and would be relatively easily found using a metal detector – the basis of which has not changed since the Second World War. Nowadays mines can be made almost totally of plastic, or even wood, with hardly any metal, and can be as small as a golf ball making them hard to detect by conventional means.
The difficulties of finding mines were emphasised when we reached Cromac’s test facility at Benkovac, where all new land mine detection methods or machinery go through rigorous testing. Experimental areas with different imported soil types allow scientists to test the methods in Croatian conditions with mines in known locations before applying them to Cromac’s blind tests. The blind test consists of over 45 mined strips which have been seeded with a wide range of land mines, unexploded ordinance, and other bits of rubble – tin cans included - the location of which only Cromac know. The challenge is of course to find them. Only when Cromac is satisfied that a method can find all the mines will they give it their approval.
If we needed to be reminded just how tough and dangerous the demining task was, we found out at our next stop; a live minefield at Grčki, just 15 km from the popular holiday destination of Zadar. Here we witnessed the painstaking work being carried out by Cromac and Titan as they cleared a field of mines. The site had already had a demining machine run over it to explode any mines present, and was now being subjected to a painstaking manual search using metal detectors and sniffer dogs to locate any remaining mines – so far the team had found three mines and four unexploded ordinances. Only when the team had searched every mm would the site be declared clear. Cromac estimated that it would take 60 days to clear the 250 000 m2.
There is therefore a real need to make this process safer, faster and cheaper and Claudio and I hope that we can make progress with our proposal and play a part in helping to clear landmines from around the world.
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