The Sunday Magazine

War brought Zimbabwean de-miners to the Falkland Islands, peace made them want to stay

The Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory, was invaded by Argentine forces on April 2, 1982. When they retreated 10 weeks later, they left behind an estimated 25,000 landmines. Removing them is the last battle of that war, and the men fighting it are from Zimbabwe. They’ve been de-mining the area since 2009. Their job will be done by the end of 2020. Every mine will be removed, but not every de-miner will go home.

‘Every mine will be removed, but not every de-miner will go home’

De-miners working near the coasts of the Falkland Islands sometimes get visits from gentoo penguins. (Eric Guth)

The beach could almost be tropical. There's white sand, turquoise water and grassy dunes along the shore, but it's cold and very, very windy. There are no trees, but there are penguins.

These are the Falkland Islands, and they sit in the South Atlantic, 500 kilometers off the shore of Argentina. Officially, they're a British Overseas Territory, but Argentina has long claimed them. The complicated dispute dates back centuries, but on April 2, 1982, Argentine forces invaded these islands and began an armed conflict that vaulted this archipelago onto the global political scene.

By the time Argentina surrendered on June 14, 900 people had died and 25,000 land mines had been laid.

The enormous task of removing all of those mines is scheduled to be completed in 2020, thanks in large part to the Zimbabwean de-miners I've come to meet.

Rodgers Mandava shows off the 51 anti-vehicle and anti-personnel landmines his crew found and defuzed in the previous 12 days. (Eric Guth)

Zimbabwean expertise

When we arrived at the minefield, supervisor Kefias Shumba, welcomed us with a smile and laid out the rules and safety protocols.

In many conflict zones, local people are trained to remove landmines, but that never happened in the Falklands. There's little unemployment and locals didn't show much interest.

That's where Zimbabwe comes in. A belt of landmines was laid along Zimbabwe's borders during a fight for independence in the 1970's — when the country was still known as Rhodesia. As a result, Zimbabwe developed a cadre of highly skilled de-miners and they've travelled to conflict zones all over the world, including Mozambique, Angola, DRC, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Kosovo and Lebanon.

The mines come in various sizes and were manufactured in a variety of countries before they were laid here in 1982. (Eric Guth)

How a landmine works

The landmines here have two halves. The bottom is an explosive charge and the top is a fuze which is triggered by pressure. The mine is armed by screwing the two halves together, like putting the lid on a jar. They are disarmed by twisting that "lid" back off again.

When sufficient pressure is exerted down on the mine, it explodes. An anti-vehicle mine takes 200 kilograms of pressure to blow up. Anti-personnel mines only need five kilograms of pressure. The penguins that wander across the minefields are too light to set them off.

Producer Jennifer Kingsley dons NATO standard body armour to visit the men at work. (Eric Guth)

Entering the minefield

On the minefield, men wear heavy blue aprons and thick face shields, NATO standard body armour. They carefully dig through the sand with the kind of hand trowel you might use in your garden.

To visit their work sites, I don the same heavy apron made of Kevlar and the clear face shield that must be tightly cinched. The wind pushes against it, and my neck muscles cramp.

Shame Mapulanga leads me down narrow safe zones to where the men are dug in, each in his own lane.

Manual de-mining requires skill and complete focus, but the setup is unbelievably simple. A shovel, pitchfork, metre stick, trowel and metal detector — like the ones vacationers use to find coins on the beach.

Manual de-mining on the Falkland Islands. (Eric Guth)

Life in Stanley

After the day in the minefields is done we hang out at Miller's Guest House, where most of the men live.

The guys play billiards and watch soccer on TV. We eat lamb chops and sadza, a Zimbabwean staple made from maize. This is what makes the Falklands so different from other conflict zones. Life — in some ways — is kind of normal.

More than 80 per cent of people in the Falkland Islands live in the town of Stanley. Its population is only about 2,000 but it has everything including schools, a hospital, government offices, grocery and hardware stores, and plenty of restaurants and shops largely supported by tourism.

After a long day at work in the minefields, de-mining crews come home to the town of Stanley. (Eric Guth)

Before this de-mining project, black faces were rare in Stanley. That's changing. 

Blessing Kachidza came as a survey engineer with the de-mining project. "Because of my colour, because of my race, when people see me, the first thing that comes to their mind is de-mining. They think — and rightly so — that de-miners are brave."

Now, he has a new job with the Falkland Islands Company, that has a hand in almost every industry from oil and gas to real estate and tourism. He's about to leave the de-mining team.

Fortunately, Kachidza already has a community here, beyond work. He took me to the Zimbabwean Fellowship on Sunday morning during prayer, readings, and a sermon.

One side of the room was full of men, several of whom I recognize from the field. The other was reserved for women and children. Most had immigrated, but the youngest were born here. Some started as de-miners, others came to join family and friends. 

The de-miners generally have an excellent reputation in the community, but this new life is far from simple. The Zimbabweans, whether de-miners or not, are often referred to collectively, as "Zims."

Phillimon Gonamombe, operations manager for the entire project, explained that because of that, "One person can spoil our reputation."

Still, the distinctly British feel of the Falklands is broadening. As you walk past red phone booths, you might hear singing in the Shona language. If you stop at the pub, the people at the next table might be speaking Ndebele.

Whether these men stay or not, they have made the land itself safe to walk on. As supervisor Rodgers Mandava told me, "This is free land now."

Click 'listen' above to hear Jennifer Kingsley's documentary, This is Free Land Now.

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