Flashback: Into the Afghan Minefields with The HALO Trust
By Jason Criss Howk
Thanksgiving Day 2020
Like many of you watching this season of The Crown, I am getting angry with Prince Charles, but also getting more curious about the world’s Princess. One of the things I remember vividly about Princess Diana is her work with The HALO Trust. I can picture her always in the HALO Trust distinctive sun-bleached blue bomb vest and face-shield in a minefield in Angola.
Photo: The HALO Trust, Princess Diana visiting a minefield
18 Years ago, in Afghanistan I had an opportunity to do what most combat engineer officers are smart enough to avoid. The Afghan HALO Trust leader in Afghanistan offered to take my boss to see the minefields of Afghanistan for himself. So, on a November day in 2002 Major General Eikenberry and our small team wandered into active minefields that had no map, and that were layered in 30 years of various mines.
It was a nightmare for mine hunters. Mines were placed without regard to international law. We found them strapped to the sides of homes and trees. These were anti-tank mines being aimed horizontally to destroy personnel, not vehicles. The mines were buried in various layers. Mine-clearers would have to continue to dig below the first or second layer of mines to find earlier munitions. The minefields of Afghanistan are three-dimensional kill zones.
I installed and removed live and practice mines in training throughout my military career. As an infantry sergeant and then a sapper platoon leader mines were part of the daily business. But seeing minefields placed recklessly by people who didn’t care about civilian casualties is heart-stopping stuff.
At each of the minefields we visited you saw one-legged children, 3-legged livestock, and families missing some members at their meals. Mines don’t care who they kill. When placed by amateurs or soldiers and never recovered as a battle-field shifts, mines get deadlier.
It was fitting that I learned about The HALO Trust in Afghanistan because that is where this global humanitarian organization started. As the Soviet Army started to leave Afghanistan in 1988 three British citizens saw the horror that landmines were causing to the civilians left to rebuild Afghanistan. Colin Mitchell, Guy Willoughby and Susan Mitchell took action and founded The HALO Trust in Kabul. They wanted to create a mine clearance capability and social movement that would allow refugees to reclaim their homes and fields, let the humanitarian aid flow to those living in former battlefields and to clear the mines that made driving off a road a death sentence.
After we left the final minefield stop on our journey we went up to the Salang Tunnel to be reminded of how breathtaking Afghanistan is.
As I traveled around nearly every province during my first year in Afghanistan (2002-03) you could still see the remnants of the many wars fought there everywhere you went. The mine clearance teams that were working to make Afghans safe had nerves of steel and clearly big hearts. They risk life and limb daily when they put on their bomb vest and face-shield and pick up their probes and other kit.
The efforts of The HAOLO Trust have created a mine clearance movement that employs local workers to make-safe their own nations, in over 17 countries. It also put the concept of clearing mines and using them more responsibly in war on the main stage of international affairs.
Today I am glad to see Prince Harry carrying on his mother’s legacy with involvement in The HALO Trust mission.
On this Thanksgiving Day in America I am thankful that there is a movement to pick up the pieces of war and make it safe for people to resume their lives. If you are inclined to give to a charity this holiday season The HALO Trust is a great team to thank.
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