Strolling Through A Minefield

Spring in Bordeaux

There have now been more than 40 days of lockdown in France. Exactly six weeks. The spring weather, meanwhile, has generally been gorgeous in southwest France. I miss visiting the city of Bordeaux, and miss sharing meals with friends.

During the past weeks I’ve put out five Instagram livestreams about wine tasting for my Vino Voices blog. You can find them on my site on YouTube. Here, for example, is episode 2.

The story below comes from a book of essays I assembled more than 15 years ago, but never shared in total with others. I may have shared this essay before here on this blog. If so, please excuse the repetition.

The point is this: if you think you are having difficulties now – how would you like to farm a land covered with buried landmines?

Below is an essay about an event from when I lived in the country of Angola in Africa. Such a beautiful land that has seen such tragedies.

Serious reason to stop

A Highland Stroll

I stood in a minefield in southern Angola. The afternoon breeze was slack and the highland temperature cool and dry. The earth was slightly moist and the knee-high grass ahead stood green and lush. I reached down and tucked a cotton workshirt into my khaki shorts.

Carefully, I reminded myself: no moving legs or sliding feet.

Twenty meters behind me, two buxom women at an open air market held their stout arms at their hips and watched us. They were both intrigued and fatigued by the sight. Like me, they did not know what would come next.

The day before in the city of Huambo, a Sunday, I sat on the porch of a young British de-miner named Ian. It was his day off work. After he wolfed down a breakfast of knotted bacon and scrambled eggs, Ian rested his feet on a table and opened a book. He clutched his tin mug of strong coffee and looked at me with a boyish, mischievous grin.

“Perfect for Sunday,” he said and tilted the title of the book my way. It was a poetry collection.

Another ‘democratic socialist’ failed state

Ian was in his mid 20’s and was ex-military. He had spent six months training and leading de-mining crews in Afghanistan before he began working in Angola. Between his contracts he had relaxed by flying to New Zealand’s South Island to go helicopter skiing.

Though he was hardened from a life of thriving on adrenaline, testing his physical limits and searching for buried explosives inches before his nose, Ian loved verse. I wondered what rhymes came to him when he crimped detonation caps or taped segments of trinitrotoluene together.  Perhaps the words of Wilfred Owen:

“The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled,

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.”

Or those of Thomas Hardy:


“That night your great guns, unawares,

Shook all our coffins as we lay,

And broke the channel window-squares

We thought it was the Judgement-day.”

A lush, remote land


I reached over the table between us and picked up a white vinyl binder. The contents included charts, maps and pages of succinct text. After a quick perusal I was assured of the quality of the compilation. Prepared by Norsk Folkehjelp—Norwegian’s Peoples Aid—the report was titled: “Landmine Survey Programme: Angola. Provincial Report: Huambo.”

I read the introduction:

The country of Angola has seen almost continuous war since 1960. During this period landmines were laid for offensive and defensive purposes by several warring factions throughout the country. The huge numbers and large array of mine types are a reflection of the complexity of the changing phases of the conflict; the Portuguese army, FAPLA, FNLA, UNITA, SWAPO, RA, ANC, FAA and Cuban forces have all been responsible for the current problem of landmine contamination. The extensive use of landmines, laid indiscriminately and unmarked, have so far claimed thousands of lives and left more than 70,000 amputees.

The report listed 58 types of land mines that had been discovered in Angola and mentioned an additional 13 types that had been reported, but were still unconfirmed. These mines came from 21 different countries, including Cuba, Hungary, France, Belgium, Romania, Israel, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, West Germany South Africa, China, Italy, Austria, USA, Zimbabwe, Spain, Egypt, and Sweden.

These statistics jolted me.

“Care to join us tomorrow?” Ian asked.

“Sure,” I agreed.

Some plateau hundreds of miles from the nearest gas station, electricity or running water

Ian and I stood in the same minefield. Inches to the sides of our feet lay low wooden stakes joined by twine. These marked boundaries of a half-meter wide trail that Ian’s team had cleared and considered safe to walk across. Within a radius of 30 meters from us, six Angolan men crawled along the earth like bulky slugs. They worked in teams of two and were equipped with flak jackets, metal detectors, probes and trowels. I watched them advance on their knees, centimeter by centimeter, peering through anti-ballistic visors and hearkening for the electronic signature of buried metal. They probed the earth with metal picks and unearthed mines with ugly big spoons. Their work was to locate and unearth explosives, defuse them, and mark—with utter precision—areas they had cleared and regarded as safe to walk across.

The minefield we stood in was next to an old military hospital; the mines were buried in zigzag rows spaced one meter apart.

A whistle blew. The men stop working. “Linea oito!” one team member shouted in Portuguese: probe line number eight.

Ian paced along the thin roped trail before me. He turned two sharp corners, exited the cordoned area and descended a mud slope. I followed him, placing my feet in his exact footsteps.

The man who had called aloud now stood and held the prize he unearthed—a circular plastic box. It looked like a bulky gift box from a drug store that could be filled with Easter eggs and candy.

Ian turned and motioned me backward.

“Wait,” he warned. “Just in case.”

The governor’s house in the town where we lived – bombed out by Soviet MIG fighters

He took the mine from his coworker and cradled it in one hand, as though inspecting an apple for bruises. With the grace of a surgeon performing a familiar operation, Ian removed a black rubber seal circling the mine and pulled the top half away from the bottom. He took a pair of pliers from his waist, inserted the needle nose into the land mine and pulled out a detonator—a pressure-activated piezoelectric switch. The mine was now effectively defused.

“PPM 2. East German,” Ian said. “Have a look.”

He pointed out components within the black box, then reached in and clasped a thumb and forefinger around an orange—white donut that looked like glossy chalk. Its thickness and diameter were slightly less than a disk of lavatory soap.

“110 grams of TNT,” he explained. “Enough to maim a leg.”

“Enough to kill?”

“Maybe. That’s not its purpose. It’s supposed to injure. You can ignore dead men, but you have to help injured soldiers off the field. If two men help an injured partner, that means three less soldiers are available to fight.“

Ian grinned, sarcastically, at the logic.

“Clever, ay?”

I nodded.

“Hold this,” he said and offered the trigger wire. I grasped it between my fingers. Ian pushed the detonator switch in the mine case and I felt a tingle of electric current, enough to detonate the explosive.

“Tricky to find these mines?” I asked.

“Not bad. Others are worse,” Ian replied. “South African mine engineers used to come here years ago. Their anti-tank mines had light sensors and so they blew up as soon as anyone dug them up.”

He smiled again.

“But the batteries only lasted five months. That’s why they’re not a problem anymore.”

Chatting with the locals on a splendidly cool mountain afternoon

He clasped the donut against a second disc he took from a padlocked toolbox, then tied the two together with strips of black plastic tape. He pulled a detonator cap out of the same toolbox and fit it over a sheathed electrical wire. To crimp the cap and wire together Ian selected a larger pair of pliers and performed the task to the side of his body—near the left crest of his pelvis. This was for safety. Detonation caps are explosive. If one blew while he cinched it, it would maim his thigh and not his groin.

With the detonation cord and the TNT ready, Ian warned his team of de-miners to crouch low and motioned the market women away. He then lit the fuse, placed it on a grass bank and paced away, inspecting his watch. The detonation cord was 20 centimeters long, cut to burn an exact number of seconds. Less than a minute later a plume of black smoke flared up and we heard a muffled boom. We returned to the blast site and peered into a 15 centimeter-deep crater.

“We’re concerned about areas, not numbers,” Ian explained. “One mine in an area the size of a football field is as bad as a thousand. If we can guarantee areas are a hundred percent clear, people will move back and plant their crops.”

In a country where mines render an area as large as California unusable—all land declared as safe was considered precious.

Each month over a dozen mine accidents were then recorded within Huambo’s city limits. Ian and his staff frequently drove their collection of unexploded munitions—white phosphorous grenades, mines, and 240 mm mortar bombs—outside the city. They then used explosives recovered from Claymore mines to ignite this pile. Regarded from a viewing point 500 meters away, the blast was visual, audible, and tactile: a strata of orange light, the din of percussion, and a pulse of air flattening grass.

Just as mines lay hidden from the landscape they cover, aspects of personality can hide from characters we meet. Ian’s overt pluckiness belied the humility he wielded before land mines; it was subconsciously calculated to prolong his safety. His cultivated attention to risk gave him a sense of balance uncommon for his age. Perhaps, I mused, this same facility enhanced his appreciation for poetry.

Hammer & sickle flag of the government – flying this into rebel territory caused serious problems

In the meantime Ian’s crew worked centimeter by centimeter, mine by mine. When dusk blew in the afternoon they were muddy and tired. They had found and defused a total of nine mines. Walking with them back to the truck I recalled another verse by Owen that mocked the adage of how sweet it was to die for one’s country:

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

Ian stopped and turned toward me.

“If anyone asks how many mines are left in Angola,” he said. “I’ll tell them nine less today.”

Nine down.

Fifteen million left to defuse.

All trim and slim from the latest bout of malaria



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