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“I’m proud to be a deminer”

Elisabeth Sambou in mine clearance operator clothes.
© J-J. Bernard / Handicap International

Elizabeth Sambou, a mine clearance operator for Handicap International in Casamance, talks about her life and work as a deminer.

Is the training difficult?
The training was tough to start with, but I got used to it and really threw myself into learning it. During the interview, they asked me if I was scared! I answered that I wasn't because, due to the risks posed by these mines, people can't get to certain areas, although they need to on a day-to-day basis to earn a living. It's where their food comes from. To begin with, I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to cope with the five-week training course.

What are the main difficulties you face in this job?
It's very hot in Casamance. I didn't grow up here. The gear is heavy and we work kneeling down. So it was tough, but eventually I got used to it. I've never really been frightened. You just need to do what you are told to and follow the safety rules. Safety's the most important thing. They mention it a lot in the training and in the instructions we get from our managers. That's reassuring. During the training, they explained the damage caused by these mines. I asked the trainer if anyone on our teams had been a victim. He replied no, and that all you needed to do was to follow the safety rules to the letter. You have to control your movements to get around and move forward, and make sure you respect the strict standards.

Is it a stressful job?
It's a really interesting job, but you need to be focused and organised. You have to eat well in the morning and relax when you have a break.
During the break, which is every thirty minutes when we're doing systematic mine clearance, we take off our work gear. We tell stories and laugh. We have fun. It really helps you to let off steam. The work's a little stressful, but there's a really good team atmosphere. It's really close-knit.

What do you think of your work?
I really like this job. I'm really keen on the idea of getting rid of these mines, which scare people so much. They need to have their minds put at rest. Having this goal helps me regain my strength and gives me the courage to carry on when I'm tired. These people have suffered for years. They need to be able to access their land. They live from the land. So I find my work really interesting. I'm really proud of the fact that after the land is cleared, people can return to their normal lives, free from fear, and go back to their usual business. Mine clearance can change people's lives.
Our whole team is really proud of the role we play. People often thank us for our work, which really pleases us. It makes it feel more worthwhile.

Are you sometimes daunted by how much land still needs to be cleared?
I would like more teams to be trained in demining, because the people need their land back quickly. It's a matter of urgency. More teams are needed, along with more women to make them more dynamic. These people need to have their minds put at rest. They have already suffered so much and can't use their land any more, even though they depend on it to earn a living. They need to be able to get back to work as quickly as possible. And when deminers are recruited they need to be offered contracts and long-time financing, so that demining can be performed over the long-term. We have a dynamic team and we want to go even further.

What relationship do you have with the people who live in the areas you are clearing and with the community workers?
We don't have much contact with the local population when we're working. The liaison workers pass on their thanks and tell us how happy they are. We are in permanent contact with the community workers. But I prefer being a deminer. I'm really fortunate to be a deminer. I really love removing the risks posed by the mines and putting people's minds at rest.

How do you see your career develop in the future?
I would like to develop my career. There are a total of four professional stages for deminers. I would like to have more responsibility one day, to master the system, and to learn and understand more about how it works... In the long-term, I would like to become a team manager and, why not, head of operations.