Commissioned Work: The HALO Trust: Angola
The state of my manicure was the last thing on my mind as I prepared to travel to rural Angola.
I was there to photograph the work of The HALO Trust. The humanitarian mine clearance charity works globally, but it is best known for escorting Princess Diana through a minefield at the height of the Angolan Civil War. Even though Angola has been at peace for sixteen years, with over 120,000 acres of suspected minefields yet to be cleared, the war continues to restrict movement, to limit people’s abilities to farm or build property, to maim, and to kill. I met children - none of whom were even alive during the war - who had survived a recent mortar explosion and still others who spoke casually of passing by mines on their daily walks.
HALO has worked in Angola for 24 years, during which it has cleared over 840 minefields and destroyed over 95,000 mines. Its presence has also lifted hundreds of Angolans out of poverty, by employing them as deminers, paramedics and managers. However, these posts have traditionally been dominated by men. So when the charity announced it was creating a campaign to employ 100 women deminers funded by UK Aid and Italian oil company Eni, I wanted to find out more.
It’s a six-hour dusty drive from the small city of Huambo to the remote camp where HALO’s inaugural female team live during demining operations. I had been instructed to pack for extreme heat, snakes, scorpions, and rocky terrain so had gone for quick-drying trousers, heavy boots and dry shampoo. Nothing fancy. After all, we were all going to be in a camp in the middle of nowhere. But on my arrival all the women greeted me wearing mini-dresses and flip flops. “We work very hard,” one shrugged. “Don’t you want to be comfortable and free afterwards?”
And that was an understatement. The work is brutally hard. Our first day started well before dawn. Temperatures can reach the mid 40s during the afternoon, so at 6am we were trudging up a mountainside in in body armour and ballistic visors, carrying our equipment and a day’s supply of water. Once in the minefields, the deminers painstakingly comb a metal detector over designated patches on the rocky mountainside. Any signal could potentially indicate a buried mine, so the team carefully excavates the soil around it with a scraper, under the watchful eye of their supervisor.
When a mine is discovered, a controlled detonation is carried out remotely once the team has retreated to a safe distance. Some types of mine are particularly pernicious and trigger an explosion of tiny metal fragments when detonated. But hearing the explosion reverberate around the mountains- especially since I have seen what these mines can do to a human body - is gratifying. A weapon that could kill and maim future generations is gone forever.
‘I remember excavating my first mine, I was very afraid,’ said 27-year-old Olimpia Nduva Chicoma Dala. “At first I thought ‘maybe I will die doing this!’ But my friends and family encouraged me. They told me to be strong and do the training. People might say it is not work for women but we can do what men can do, we just need to believe and be strong.’
The demining day ends in utter exhaustion at 2pm. Conditions in the camp, as you might expect, are spartan. Power is supplied by a generator which whirs for a few hours before the camp is plunged into darkness; bathing facilities are limited to a bucket of water. But the women have turned it into a home, sharing songs, stories, and laughs in the shade of their tents. Their secret weapon is an entire tent stacked with nail polish, lingerie, hair supplies, mini-dresses and cowboy hats - a designated den for post-work pampering. And that is how I found myself getting my nails painted a lovely burgundy while watching a telenovela and snacking on fresh avocado. I remember asking one of the male supervisors if the men’s camps were like this, and he laughed at me, saying “The men are just on their phones all the time. These women have built a real community here.”
And this community is vitally important, since they are all living away from their families and children. Ever since my son was born, I am constantly asked how I can bear to be away from him - whether I’m working thirty minutes from my apartment in New York or overseas for a week. But here, we were all in the same boat. “Of course I miss them,” said Olimpia, who has two children. “But I am used to it now and the time goes quite fast—suddenly it is time to go home again. They are always very excited when I come back.”
When we visited the deminers’ families, it was clear that their children were fiercely proud of their mothers, understanding that they were creating a safer, more prosperous Angola. Even for the children in Kanenguerere village, seeing women clearing mines has expanded their sense of what is possible for their own futures. “When I saw these amazing women climbing the mountains full of mines I was so surprised,” said Aurora, 14. “But then I could see they were making the land safe.”
Before the women started demining at Kanenguerere, Aurora and her friends ran barefoot over the land. One unlucky step could have resulted in injury or death. The removal of the mines will also protect children like Mainha and his younger brothers, who travel through minefields and past unexploded ordnance every day to bring their cattle down to the river.
“I feel proud that I am doing this job,” said deminer Júlia Kuyanga Tchimba. “I am helping the world, but especially my country. We can leave the fields free of mines and save people’s and animals’ lives. Angola needs to be able to develop. We need to clear the mines for schools and roads so the country can grow.”