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Helen Tirebuck: Landmine Clearance
Just another day at the office

I interviewed Helen Tirebuck a number of years ago but her work in demining (she's kept all her old blog posts) is inspirational. At last check (October 2016) Helen was no longer demining but was still very much working in the humanitarian arena with Mercy Corps in Iraq.

Women on the Road: The obvious question, of course, is how did you get into this line of work?
Helen Tirebuck: Good question! I certainly don't remember seeing 'deminer' on the suggested careers list at school. I had been working for an international charity in Edinburgh and decided to move to a job in London. I only lasted 9 months and every day I was there a piece of my soul died. I became a different person and didn't much like that person. So I quit my job and went to teach scuba diving in Costa Rica for a few months to gain some perspective and figure out what to do next. When I came home I saw a job advert with the HALO Trust. I couldn't believe such a job existed - working in humanitarian mine clearance, out in the field in far flung, post conflict sounded like the advert had been written just for me. I applied, was interviewed and less than a month later was on a flight to Cambodia!

Helen and her Mozambican mine clearance team

WOTR: What would you tell women who were thinking of this type of work?
Helen: Not surprisingly there are not many women in the field working in mineclearance. The interview with HALO is quite tough but rightly so. It definitely takes a certain type of person to do this work. We live far from our families, sometimes in fairly rudimentary accommodation (I lived in a tent in the minefield for several months in Mozambique while I was setting up a new programme) and we work pretty long hours. I would say this kind of job is a 'life choice'! Men and women are treated the same so for women considering this career, be prepared to rough it with the blokes.

Saying all that I have met some unbelievably interesting and sometimes really quite eccentric characters doing this job - from crocodile hunters to witch doctors. It certainly makes for an interesting 'typical day at work'!

WOTR: How grueling is the training, and what is involved?
Helen: It's pretty intense. I spent three months in Cambodia training to be a deminer, learning how to put in IV drips, the safe use of explosives and basic Landrover mechanics as well as studying into the night on how to correctly identify mortar bombs and hand grenades.

At the end of the training we had a physical test which involved hiking round a 10km circuit in the blazing sun, doing tests along the way and wading through rivers. I have to admit I love that sort of thing so I was in my element, but there's no denying it was quite hard work!

Children are often the most affected by landmines and unexploded ordinance, which may look like bright yellow balls begging to be picked up

WOTR: Describe three different tasks you do in your work.
Helen: The short answer..destroying landmines, conducting safety checks, office admin! The slightly longer answer...all the mines we find have to be destroyed and we find a lot each day so I visit our sites and destroy the mines my teams have found. I also visit each of my minefields to make sure safety rules are being adhered to by the deminers. And as with any job there are some days you just have to catch up on admin. I am responsible for about 200 staff so I am sometimes (reluctantly) stuck in the office - today I spent the day signing hundreds of contracts...

WOTR: What was your scariest moment?
Helen: Doing a presentation to the senior management at HALO HQ during our annual conference! I'm not a big fan of public speaking and these guys have been in the industry for many years so really know their stuff. People are always surprised that my first day demining or my first time dealing with explosives weren't scary - but it's what I am trained to do. I have utter confidence in my training so when it came to the real thing the training kicked in and I just got on with it.

WOTR: How does your family cope with your dangerous job?
Helen: My parents are torn between wanting me to be happy and probably wishing I would just come home and settle down. When I first took this job they were worried - naturally - but they know I'm sensible. Plus I have spent time explaining mine clearance to them so they understand that although I work with explosives it is done in the safest way possible. Deep down they know if I was doing a 9 to 5 office job in the UK I wouldn't be happy. My sisters just enjoy hearing the stories!

WOTR: What do you get out of your work personally?
Helen: A huge amount. My work is very tangible - once a landmine is destroyed it's gone forever. I'm also experiencing first-hand the stories you read about in the news. I'm currently in Sri Lanka where the war has just ended and I feel like I am seeing history in the making - the hundreds of thousands of people returning to live on the land we clear were forced from their homes more than 20 years ago because of the civil war.

It's really very humbling to be working alongside my demining teams. My guys work day in day out in the fierce heat, on their hands and knees excavating the ground inch by inch. Its tough, tedious, backbreaking work. There's nothing quite like this job to put your life in perspective.

Plus let's face it, I get to blow things up for a living - I'd be lying if I said I wasn't attracted to the excitement of it all.

There are days when I pinch myself that this is my life!

WOTR: Which country did you most like working in?
Helen: All three countries are very different in terms of the culture - Mozambicans are full of life and LOVE music and dancing, Cambodia is a beautiful country with very gentle people, Sri Lanka is a very spiritual place and the most incredibly colourful country. In terms of demining the techniques differ slightly from country to country but overall a country is all about the people and although people from different countries initially seem very different actually I don't think that's the case - customs and traditions might differ but people are just people.

WOTR: Do you think you'll ever live a more conventional life? Do you even want to?
Helen: No. To be honest it's just not something I want in life. I love my job and I'm not sure so many people who live a slightly more conventional life can say that! I miss my family and sometimes after a tough day at work I wonder what life would be like if I had stuck out my job in London but then I remember how unhappy I was and the number of times I squashed onto the underground wondering 'what is the point of all this'. Life is too short to be unhappy.

WOTR: Is there something in your line of work that you would still like to do?
Helen: I would like to spend time on the HALO Afghanistan programme - even though that might be the final straw for my long-suffering parents. To experience that country in its current state of historical change would be a privilege. Plus it's where HALO first began its work more than 20 years ago so it's really where humanitarian mine clearance was born.

WOTR: Where to and what next?
Helen: Who knows! I will probably be in Jaffna for the next year before I am moved to the next programme which requires my skills. As for life after HALO...I'm not quite sure what one does after clearing landmines!

NOTE: As mentioned above, Helen was most recently working for Mercy Corps in Iraq.