Thirty years ago Afghanistan was under Soviet occupation and thousands of civilians were being killed or injured by landmines – landmines which also prevented the return of tens of thousands of refugees.
The crisis was witnessed by Colin Mitchell, Guy Willoughby, and Susan Mitchell OBE and they dedicated their lives to doing something about it. On 15th May 1988 the Soviet forces began their withdrawal, and in that same week the non-profit demining charity HALO was set up in Kabul.
The global nature of the landmine situation came to international prominence in 1997 when Diana, Princess of Wales, famously joined a HALO team to walk through a minefield in Angola. 20 years later, on International Mine Awareness Day 4th April 2017, her son, HRH Prince Harry, lent his support to the HALO Trust and the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). Their aim is to create a landmine free world by 2025.
HALO is now the world’s largest and oldest humanitarian demining operation, with nearly four thousand people working in Afghanistan alone and nearly nine thousand people working globally across 17 programmes in 17 countries. Its teams are still clearing mines and unexploded ordnance from Afghanistan, and other countries including Somalia, Angola, Sri-Lanka and Cambodia. The work starts with workers in the field who use metal detectors to discover the mines and also mark the places where civilians have been killed or injured by them, many of whom are children. As they work they create hand-drawn minefield sketch maps.
Jesse Hamlin is HALO’s Global Geographic Information System (GIS) and Database Officer, and supports the charity’s operations across several different programmes around the world. He explained how the hand-drawn maps are scanned using the latest portable technology to create digital files that can then be used to produce accurate, interactive mapping that can be precisely geo-referenced.
He said: “HALO’s work saves lives. It is the essential first step towards getting people back on their feet after the terrible crisis of war. Once minefields have been cleared seeds can be planted and within months vital crops will flourish once more. Roads, schools and local amenities can be restored, and life can begin again. But first the mines have to be found and safely taken out of the ground for good.”
Digital GIS mapping aids and compliments HALO’s task, and that depends on sophisticated hardware and software.
Jesse continues: “The hand-drawn maps are highly accurate. They contain not only information about the minefields such as locations of mines and mine accidents, but also local landmarks such as rivers, trails and villages. In many cases the maps have much more detail than we would ever record in GIS, and as such are a highly valuable archive tool that is tangible. Every time we clear a minefield by uncovering the ordinance with metal detectors or machines we mark a polygon area on the maps which identifies the areas we have cleared. This is scanned using Colortrac scanners to archive the information obtained, and can also be georeferenced in GIS to overlay on top of existing mapped polygon areas. This creates a mosaic of the area that records where mines were and any accidents we learned about.
“This hand-drawn information must be accurately recorded using high quality scanners which must be both portable and easy to use. We don’t have the manpower or logistic ability to spend too much valuable time training our operatives, and they often work in tough conditions, so the scanners need to be robust while offering plug and play simplicity. One of our Partners is Colortrac, who has supported us with its portable large-format scanners by providing them at a special price. Our offices are in Dumfries and Salisbury, so Colortrac’s UK-based location means we can get our scanners delivered to a convenient shipping depot and from there they can be sent out to anywhere in the world. Without Colortrac we would not be able to bring our work to life and record these important historical artefacts, some of which are nearly 30 years old.”
Jesse describes himself as a technician who helps each country digitise information to record the work HALO is doing. His teams collect and analyse data quality and flow and he deals with reporting issues as well as technical training and support in every country the charity is working. HALO uses thousands of scanned sketch maps to help create a highly detailed database of every cleared minefield using GIS, mapping and information management. It could be described as a chart of inhumanity and war, but he considers it as an important historical archive.
“We are working towards the day when landmines are a thing of the past. It might seem odd to plan to put HALO out of business by making the planet landmine free by 2025, but anyone who has seen the terrible suffering caused by these dreadful weapons will agree that the world is a better place without them. HALO has also become increasingly involved in dealing with the broader debris of war, small arms, IEDs and unexploded ordinance.”
He concluded, “HALO leads the global effort to protect the lives and restore the livelihoods of those affected by war. To do that our teams must risk their own lives by entering places where war has seeded the ground with death and make them safe again. Such work must be recorded and remembered, in the hope that one day the need for it will end, forever.”
For more information visit www.halotrust.org.