50 mines and counting: a woman clears a path to safety in Senegal
In southern Senegal, landmines pose a clear and present danger. The violence that rocked Casamance for 30 years is now a distant memory, but the mines laid during the fighting, often on the edges of villages, continue to put people’s lives in danger.
© J-J. Bernard/Handicap International
Thirty-one-year-old Fatou Diaw grew up in Casamance amid the threat of lanmines. But it only became real in 2001.
“One of my cousins stepped on a mine,” she explains. “He was only about 20. Both of his feet were torn off in the explosion, and he died a couple of hours later. It had a big impact on me.”
So much so, that in 2008, Fatou responded to a Handicap International job vacancy for deminers. “I didn’t know exactly what the job entailed until I went for my first interview,” she explains. “I liked the idea straightaway.”
A mine destroyed is a life saved
Out of 12 applicants, only two, including Fatou, were selected. She took a six-week training course and then started her first mission. “I was quite stressed that first week. And I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t find anything. My manager said: ‘Don’t be impatient. You’ll find one.’”
"Deminers like finding mines—just like fishermen like reeling in a fish,” explains the head of Handicap International’s demining team, Charles Coly. “It’s sort of their reward for a job well done. A mine destroyed or deactivated is a life saved. Deminers know how important their work is, and they are proud of it.”
Fatou’s patience paid off. “When I found my first mine, my blood froze and I shrank back,” she recalls. “I called a colleague, who took over. Then I started finding more and more of them, and I got used to it very quickly. Since I started working as a deminer, I have identified more than 50 mines.”
I'm helping a lot of people
In a region where most women are expected to become full-time homemakers when they have children, a young mother who is also a deminer doesn’t go unnoticed.
“A lot of my college friends are surprised when they learn what my aunt does for a living,” explains Fani, Fatou’s 22-year-old niece. “It’s really physical!”
Indeed, working under the weight of a heavy uniform built to protect vital organs from a blast, in the heat of the sun, while kneeling and crouching makes this job an uncomfortable and exhausting one.
But the allure is clear to Fatou. “When I’m working, I’m helping a lot of people: people who had to abandon their villages and fields, who were displaced by the fighting, only to return home to find themselves surrounded by mines. I know I’m saving lives.”
No margin for error
Patience is key. “You sometimes work for a long time, and you don’t find anything,” Fatou says. “You often feel tired, but you need to stay focused. If you let your guard down, you could make a wrong move and trigger an accident. You always need to have a clear head and not let your mind wander. It’s really important to be mentally prepared.”
Watching Fatou at work is a sight not to be missed. Concentrated on the job in hand, oblivious to the world around her, and moving with extreme precision, whether she’s handling a metal detector or unearthing a mine, Fatou knows there is no margin for error.
She has had many memorable finds as a result. “I found a mine that was connected to a trip wire,” she says. “It looked very dangerous, but you just have to follow the rules: you take a stick and, without overdoing it, you lightly free it from the plants and follow it to the end, where you’ll find the device, which could be a grenade or an improvised explosive device. We destroyed it.”
After a long day of work, Fatou arrives home on the outskirts of Ziguinchor, the provincial capital of Casamance. After catching up with her two sons, 11-month-old Pabomar and 4-year-old Mamdulami, she makes dinner, and washes her boys before bedtime. Her husband, who works as a tailor in Dakar, comes home once every four months.
Senegal plans to be mine-free by 2021. In 2016, Handicap International expects to demine 55,000 square metres of land, the equivalent of eight football pitches.