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Where a mistake means death

Checking for landmines on a Rwanda hill.

Checking for landmines on a Rwanda hill.

A plaque has been unveiled at the Upper Barrakka, in Valletta to commemorate the work of explosives disposal teams in Malta in World War II and since. Vanessa Macdonald spoke to Ben Remfrey, founder of the main sponsor, Praedium Consulting Malta, about how a company that runs mine-clearing courses ended up in Gozo.

Almost every bomb disposal expert has that moment when time stands still. For Ben Remfrey, it was when he turned around after a successful mission neutralising explosives circling an oil well in Kuwait.

“I looked at my footprints in the oil sand and saw the tip of an anti-personnel mine sticking out. I had stepped right on it – but it had no fuse,” he said with the slightest shudder.

Mr Remfrey is not one to allow fear to paralyse him. He joined the British army in 1979, aged just 16, and spent 10 years as a commando, building up experience in demolition and explosives.

He left the army, but the first Gulf War was just the excuse he needed to go back to what he loved: his expertise was sought by oil-well firefighter Red Adair to help with clearing booby-trapped areas near oil wells so that they could be capped.

After three years, family pressures lured him to Guernsey, but he soon got restless. He took on a contract to map evidence of unexploded mines in Kosovo, which would serve as a guide for clearance missions and decided to offer his knowledge for a good cause.

In 1999, he set up a charity, the Mines Awareness Trust, planning to train children – one of every five victims of mines – on mine awareness.

His passion took him to countries around the world from Eritrea to Sri Lanka and from Congo to Iraq. The trust was pivotal in making Rwanda the first mine-free country, but increasing costs and lack of governmental support were major factors in the heart-wrenching decision to close it down in 2010.

There was still so much to do – 65 countries have landmines and ‘unexploded remnants of war’ – but in 2013, the situation in Libya distracted him, and he left his family in Malta to work there.

His wife met the wife of Thomas Schildhammer, an Austrian financial services practitioner, and he and Mr Schildhammer – chalk and cheese at first glance – found a common cause.

By 2015, they and Mr Schildhammer’s business partner, Karl Strobl, came up with the idea of PCM, which they registered at Mr Remfrey’s address in Gozo, with a former Australian royal engineer, Emanuel Borg, as his local manager.

The first project was to purchase a bomb disposal school in Kosovo. The school has since won several tenders from a variety of groups to run courses and in just two years has already virtually doubled the infrastructure, with Mr Remfrey commuting there but leaving the day-to-day running in the hands of a general manager.

We know that Raqqa is going to be the most dangerous clearance project so far

As you would expect from a course where a mistake means certain death, the students are put through their paces: it take six weeks to get a new recruit up to intermediate level and at least 12 months of operational experience – including live ordnance training at the school’s site in Montenegro – before they can join the advanced course.

It was to be expected that the school’s reputation would attract the attention of other countries, with Mr Remfrey spending a few weeks recently in the Solomon Islands, where World War II bombs were bulldozed into the jungle and forgotten about.

He is also working with the main manufacturers to understand the technology and with other firms to come up with better ways to detect the mines, such as drones carrying infrared cameras that are able to spot mines, which absorb more daytime heat than the surrounding land.

But nothing can change the reality: the work is treacherous.

His team of six trainers, supported by the US State Department, has been working in Syria with Kurds who want to be able to clear villages once they are liberated so that the population can move back in. But of the 120 trained so far since October 2016, a few have already been killed or maimed.

“We know that Raqqa is going to be the most dangerous clearance project so far, as they will have to deal with all the weapons, shells and booby traps, as well as the mines themselves. Our students know what they are up against. All we can do is give them the best training there is to give them the best chance of success. It is not easy looking at their dedication and knowing that some of them will die.”

Lethal landmines

Although 162 countries signed the 1997 so-called Ottawa Treaty banning the use of landmines, they remain lethal for years after.

Whereas the placement and arming of mines is relatively inexpensive and simple, the process of detecting and removing them is typically expensive, slow and dangerous – particularly when their location has not been logged.

It is estimated that 100 million mines have been deployed around the world, with the top countries being Egypt and Iran, and Afghanistan, Angola and China tying for third place.

The Bomb Disposal Plaque being unveiled today commemorates the exceptional achievements of the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Sections in World War II.

In two years between 1940 and 1942, at most two officers and 30 men dealt with 7,300 unexploded bombs – some 10 times the average for their counterparts across all theatres of war.

The Bomb Disposal Plaque will also recognise the continued work by RE Bomb Disposal and Armed Forces of Malta since 1945 to clear unexploded World War II bombs from the island.

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