Two years ago, Claudia Felizardo Armando from Mozambique applied for a job - with a difference. She signed up to find and destroy land mines in a country heavily scarred by the remnants of 16 years of civil war.
Armando became one of the first local women deminers for the HALO Trust, a charity that removes land mines and other war debris in affected countries around the world.
"In the beginning I was a little apprehensive, knowing that we'd be working with mines and that mines kill, but once we had done the course, where we learned how to find the mines and destroy them, it was fine. Today, I think the job of deminer is just like any other job," Armando, 23, told AlertNet by telephone from the capital Maputo. "But it requires a lot of dedication."
HALO in Mozambique now has two all-female 'sections' of deminers - each section has eight members - in what was traditionally a male industry. The female recruits form part of a Mozambiquen staff of 350 that HALO hopes will help turn the country into a demining success story and serve as an example to other nations still infested with mines, like Angola, Afghanistan or Cambodia.
Before demining began, Mozambique was one of the world's most heavily mined countries, littered with hundreds of thousands of land mines after a civil war that ended in 1992.
HALO has cleared 100,840 mines in the north of Mozambique since 1994, meaning all known minefields in the four northern provinces have been cleared. Since moving to the centre and south, HALO has cleared 2,146 mines. Extensive surveys of local communities help identify minefields and, afterwards, confirm they are clear.
The charity estimates there are up to 90,000 mines left in central and southern provinces. Its main focus now is in Maputo province, where it aims to have cleared all minefields by the end of next year. Handicap International and APOPO also operate in Mozambique but HALO is the largest non-governmental organisation involved in mine clearance.
JOB WITH A PURPOSE
Armando, who is single without children, spent 18 months working as a deminer before progressing to the medical team. She trained and worked as a paramedic deminer - each section of eight deminers includes two paramedics - and was promoted earlier this year to Location Medic, in charge of running casualty evacuation exercises in the field and responsible for medical stores.
She has witnessed a few accidents, including one fatality, but sees the work as relatively safe and is pleased to be doing a job with a purpose.
"It's good because we're getting rid of all the mines in Mozambique. I know I'm helping others," she said. "And yes, it can be a dangerous job, but only if you don't follow the rules. If you follow the rules, it's fine."
Helen Gray, a 29-year-old Scot, is in charge of HALO Mozambique's 350 staff who are currently working across the provinces of Tete and Manica in central Mozambique and Maputo in the south. Hiring teams locally, close to the minefields, is vital, she said.
HALO has recently started working in the district of Cahora Bassa, in Tete province, on an enormous Portuguese-laid mine belt around the Cahora Bassa dam - one of the sections of the mine belt is 11 kilometres long, said Gray, and the area is difficult to access.
"In a place like this it's absolutely vital to be recruiting from the local population and not turning up with a whole load of strangers," Gray told AlertNet from Maputo. "The great thing is that the salaries paid to the deminers go back into the community that's been horrifically impacted by the mines, and also there will be confidence in the land that's been cleared as they people who've cleared the land are the ones who are going to be using it. That's really important."
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Gray said a lot of the Mozambiquen staff sign up with HALO initially just to have a job, but soon they are drawn by the humanitarian side of the work.
"Primarily, for the majority, it's about getting a job. It's a good job, a stable job, with reasonable salaries and conditions. But once they have their jobs, there really is a sense of pride in the staff about what they're doing, that they're making a difference to their country, and that's really nice," she said.
Deminers in Mozambique earn the equivalent of 200 U.S. dollars a month while a minefield supervisor receives 500 U.S. dollars, plus allowances.
In areas where jobs are difficult to come by, particularly for women, demining is providing a vital income source. But it is hard, physical work and staff spend a lot of time in a tent, camping near the minefields.
Most of the women working for HALO are in their 20s or 30s and single, although a few are married and have children. Staying in remote camps away from home is particularly challenging for those with families, said Gray. Workers also face soaring temperatures in the summer.
HALO's male and female staff do the same kind of work and follow standard procedures. The only difference is that "the food in the women's camp tends to be a bit better," said Gray.
BALL AND CHAIN
For Gray herself, demining is a satisfying and clear-cut humanitarian job.
"Mine clearance is far simpler than other development activities. You go to a village where there's a mine problem, you identify it, you clear it and the job's done. Noone has any accidents any more, there's more land freed up for agriculture and housing or for whatever the community wants to use the land. The mines don't reappear. So once the job is done, it's done," she said.
HALO's goal in Mozambique is to clear all known minefields by 2014, which is the end of the extension to the Mine Ban Treaty deadline that Mozambique requested.
"I think this goal is achievable ... but we've got to find much more funding to be able to employ the number of deminers we need to clear all the mine fields in our three provinces by 2014," she said.
Gray said HALO has a projected funding shortfall for 2010 of about 1.4 million U.S. dollars.
Nevertheless, parts of Mozambique are already a success story and if the funding comes in, the country will be a great example to other parts of the world struggling with the after-affects of war, HALO believes.
"Mozambique is one of the country's that's been very badly affected by mines, and it's close to relieving itself of that. By 2014, it could be free to develop without that ball and chain around its ankle," she said.
"It's not right that we're in 2009 and last month we found mines just 4 metres away from houses in Cahora Bassa district. It's really sad. We can take this fear away from the local population, from people who are marginalised and poor and who have bigger things to worry about like education and water supplies, the basics. They shouldn't have to worry about mines at the bottom of the garden," Gray added.