Insight: Halo Trust still offers hope to victims

James Cowan with Sasikala, who has now built a permanent house for her family on cleared land in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka. Picture: Devaka Seneviratne
James Cowan with Sasikala, who has now built a permanent house for her family on cleared land in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka. Picture: Devaka Seneviratne
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DESPITE setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Halo Trust still offers hope to civilians devastated by war, turning minefields into farm land, its CEO tells Dani Garavelli

I am driving along the Dalveen Pass in Dumfries and Galloway, a lone ­traveller in a lush landscape bathed in sunlight. On either side, green plains give way to sharp slopes that cast dramatic shadows on the road. It’s the ideal location for a pleasure trip; but I’m imagining what it would be like if it were mined. What if, as I negotiated the twists and turns, my eyes were seeking out not rabbits but IEDs concealed in the undergrowth? What if the fields of the farms dotted here and there could not be used without risking the loss of a limb?

Cambodian deminers from the Halo Trust demonstrate mine detection techniques. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Cambodian deminers from the Halo Trust demonstrate mine detection techniques. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

The reason for my grim reverie is that I’m heading for the headquarters of the Halo Trust, the landmine clearance charity made famous by Princess Diana, at Carronfoot near Thornhill. From the front, the converted stable block could be mistaken for a heritage or wildlife centre, but it is, in fact, the engine room of an operation which carries out mine clearance in strife-torn countries. In a small back garden, a table and chairs sit close to three defunct surface-to-air missiles, while inside, the walls are covered in maps and photographs and a row of clocks showing the time in different parts of the world.

Its 20-odd members of staff include a number of international workers. As desk officer for South Asia and the Horn of Africa, Valon Kumnova, from Kosovo, runs programmes in Sri Lanka, Somalia and Somaliland. Umar Akhukhadzhaev, from Chechnya, is the general mechanical officer.

The man I have come to meet, however, is the Halo Trust’s new CEO, Major-General James Cowan. The charity endured a period of turmoil last year when co-founder Guy Willoughby resigned after it emerged private school fees for his children were included in his already healthy remuneration package. Now Cowan – a highly decorated officer who commanded the Black Watch in Iraq in 2004 and the 11th Light Brigade in Afghanistan in 2009/2010 – hopes to steer the charity into a new era marked by increasingly complex challenges. The charity will continue its existing work. It has already cleared 1.5 million landmines and it predicts the world could be mine-free by 2025. But as casualties from mines have decreased, those caused by other remnants of war have risen: small arms – from pistols to rocket launchers – which fall into the wrong hands, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and unstable munitions stored in dumps in busy settlements which explode, killing hundreds, as they did in Brazzaville in the Congo in 2012.

Cowan wants Halo to focus more of its attention on these problems in the coming years. “When I served in Afghanistan, 64 of my soldiers died, 30 of them from IEDs, so I feel very personally about them,” he says. “IEDs are basically mines, but they are homemade, so they tend to be more volatile. The really evil thing about them is they are laid amongst the people; and they kill the men, women and children who step on them.

“We know many provinces still have a significant number of IEDs which are in the ground or being laid, so getting out there and surveying the ground as we are doing now in Helmand should be a really important part of what we do.” The Halo Trust is also building secure armouries away from population centres to try to ensure small arms are more tightly controlled, and to reduce the risk of future blasts.

Cowan joined the Ulster Defence Regiment in 1982 and spent a year in Northern Ireland before studying at Oxford and going to Sandhurst. His first job as an Army officer was to guard Rudolph Hess in Berlin, and his last was as General Officer Commanding of the 3rd (UK) Division. Today, though, he is sitting in an open-necked white shirt drinking from an I Love Afghanistan mug, with only the merest hint of military stiffness.

The most challenging tours of Cowan’s career were in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, the Black Watch were supposed to be heading home after coming under intense fire in Basra and Al-Amara, when they were told they were to travel north to Camp Dogwood, 25 miles south of Baghdad to relieve US troops engaged in the Battle of Fallujah. The decision was controversial and took place against a backdrop of a morale-sapping debate over the future of the regiment which was eventually amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland. In the month they were there, three soldiers and an interpreter died at the hands of a suicide bomber. A fourth soldier died in a roadside bombing and a fifth in a road accident. Later, the events at Camp Dogwood were dramatised in Gregory Burke’s hit play Black Watch.

“It was a leadership challenge to suddenly have to take people who thought they were on their way home to Fife and tell them, no, you’re going to Fallujah,” he says. “We had to move all those people, all our equipment, 600 miles in a convoy and fight a very different enemy. But I was so impressed by the way the men just turned themselves around.” In 2009/2010, Cowan commanded the 11th Light Brigade in Afghanistan as it tried to push the Taleban out of Helmand.

It must be depressing for him to look back at what is happening in those countries now. Ten years on from Camp Dogwood, large parts of Iraq and Syria are controlled by Isis. Then, the day after we meet, it emerges Taleban fighters have retaken Musa Qala, which was captured by British soldiers in 2007 and had been controlled by Afghan forces for a matter of months.

Cowan says the world must have the “strategic patience” to bring these “difficult” countries out of conflict and that, so long as the international community keeps funding it, Halo can play an integral role in this process. Though some might see ordnance clearance as the flipside of waging war, Cowan believes his goals as an officer and Halo CEO are identical: to bring peace and stability to troubled regions.

“When we were protecting the southern flank at Fallujah, I didn’t think of it in terms of killing the enemy, I thought of it in terms of protecting the ordinary people of Iraq who were having and continue to have a very difficult time,” he says. “That is what we are trying to do here at Halo: give people stability, a livelihood, hope for the future.”

Halo was founded 27 years ago by Willoughby and Colin “Mad Mitch” Mitchell, the former commander of the 1st battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who gained his nickname fighting in Aden in 1967. They were concerned by the way mines were hampering the provision of humanitarian supplies in the Horn of Africa, and claiming lives and limbs in Afghanistan. Halo moved into Afghanistan as the Soviets began their withdrawal in April 1988. Over the decades, it has expanded its operations and currently has 6,500 workers in 17 countries.

Halo Trust director of strategy Simon Conway joined the charity in 1998 – the year after Princess Diana highlighted it’s work by walking through a minefield in Angola. An ex-member of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, his first job was in the north-west of Cambodia, six hours along a road impassable in the rainy season, clearing mines on the K5 minebelt on the Thai border. “In Cambodia, if you are poor, often the only land that is available to you is heavily-mined, so there were people living in amongst the [devices]. We were clearing towards them and shouting ‘Stop using your hoes – we will be with you in a week or two’.”

Sometimes people would be so desperate for Halo to arrive they would meet them on the road. “I remember one village called Mahar Sarob,” says Conway. “A local character who had been clearing the mines had already lost a leg and a couple of fingers. They needed fresh help, so they flagged me down and said: ‘We’re about 10 miles north of here. Will you come?’ We arrived at this village which no-one knew existed and the people were crammed on a postage stamp completely surrounded by mines. We cleared 650 in the first six weeks.”

In Cambodia, Conway managed 300 deminers, mostly ex-combatants from the civil war. The employment of local people is at the heart of the Halo ethos: it keeps men of fighting age from becoming insurgents and provides an income to women who have been left to bring up their families alone. Sometimes the salary it provides will be used to buy the seeds to plant crops on the cleared land. But using local workers also makes it easier for Halo to gain trust and to keep abreast of what is happening in the ­community.

Despite technological advances, ­demining is still dangerous and labour intensive work and, though the charity has a good safety record, fatalities do occur. Teams of between eight to 40 will work in lanes at least 25 metres apart, clearing one square metre at a time. Wearing a ballistic visor, they scan the ground with metal detectors to find and excavate the mines. Where appropriate, ground-penetrating radar or armoured vehicles fitted with flails may also be deployed.

In Conway’s experience successful mine clearance brings communities back to life. “These sort of barren wastelands suddenly become cultivated; then you start to see small businesses grow up; then, inevitably, the government arrives, they get a road, a school, they might even appear on a census,” he says.

Earlier this year he returned to Mahar Sarob and found it flourishing. “There’s a tarmac road, they’ve got a mobile phone signal and the houses look more substantial.” In Thma Puok, where he once lived in a wooden hut, there is now a four-storey bank offering small business loans.

Conway has seen this transformation in most of the countries he has worked in: Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Georgia. He recently received a bottle of wine from a vineyard in a former minefield in Abkhazia.

The Halo Trust has also played a part in changing the law on the use of mines. One hundred and sixty-two countries have signed the Ottowa Treaty which bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti personnel, and anti-tank mines. Even those countries which haven’t signed, such as the US and China, abide by its principles. Only a handful of failed states – Libya, Iraq, Syria – are still involved in laying or trading in mines.

Willoughby’s resignation in August last year was a source of embarrassment for the Halo Trust, but Cowan insists its problems are not systemic. “Halo had a moment when it needed to make some changes, but its board stepped in, acted decisively, then appointed a new CEO,” he says. “Until it did, it had interim management and it was stable. Its turnover increased during the year in question and the day-to-day work carried on.”

While the current refugee crisis continues to spiral out of control, it is worth reflecting on the way Halo’s work on landmines, small arms and unstable munitions helps create a safer environment so those displaced by conflict can return home.

Though Cowan has only been CEO for six months, he has already been to Sri Lanka to witness the impact the charity is having in a country which is emerging from a decades-long civil war. “I was standing in a field as mines were being found,” he says. “They were spaced at two feet intervals, so it was a wilderness, nothing could be done with it. Yet 100 yards away [on cleared land] I met families who had returned from refugee camps, who had been living in squalor, and who were living normal lives again.

“On one side of the line there was wilderness, on the other hope. We want to keep pushing that line to the point where there is no more wilderness left.”

Earlier, when I remarked on the apparent incongruity of locating the Halo Trust HQ in a place so apparently untouched by conflict, Conway said he’d been told that after the Second World War, Ukrainian PoWs had been put to work removing mortar shells from hillsides in Dumfries and Galloway.

That’s what those involved in Halo hope will happen in former war zones in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere: mines and other explosive remnants of war will be removed, fields will be ploughed, roads and schools will be built. And a generation or so later, no-one will remember they were ever anything other than safe havens. «