South African explosive experts, technicians and trained sniffer dogs are currently working in six African countries to clear large swathes of territory of life-threatening landmines and explosive devices.
Ashley Williams, the CEO of Mechem, a divison of Denel says the company has 212 employees deployed on the continent in support of United Nations or African Union peacekeeping operations. Mechem is considered a global leader in Explosives Remnants of War (ERW) clearance operations and many of its staff members have gained experience in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Angola.
In Africa, its primary operations are conducted in post-conflict countries where warring armies and groups of combatants have left behind millions of anti-personnel mines and Anti-vehicle landmines that are posing significant dangers to local communities.
According to UN estimates there are at least 110 million active mines scattered across the world of which about 44 million have been planted on the African continent. Mechem, is the only UN-accredited ERW clearance company in Africa.
The annual commemoration of United Nations Day, 24 October, serves as a platform to highlight the international body's campaigns to ban landmines and improve global awareness of the dangers associated with these devices.
"In addition to the obvious dangers to life and limb, landmines have a devastating impact on local economic development," says Williams. "Vast tracts of land are never utilised, roads are not used and communities are forced to relocate out of fear of the dangers hidden under the soil."
Mechem has been supporting UN peacekeeping activities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 2003. It currently has 84 members divided into five teams operating from Kisangani in the centre of the country.
A typical team consists of demining experts travelling in mine-protected vehicles supported by Mechem trained sniffer dogs. Roads are being swept on a regular basis but the bulk of the time is being spent on clearing identified minefields in the countryside.
"This is a painstaking and highly dangerous operation, explains Johan Coetzee, Senior Portfolio Manager: Operations at Mechem. "Modern technology and sniffer dogs can help us to detect the presence of mines - but in most instances the lifting and disposal of the mines have to be done manually."
The company is exceptionally proud of its safety record and the fact that it has not lost a single life in any of its African operations. Depending on the operational requirements staff members are deployed for a three month period followed by two weeks of rest and recuperation back at home.
In Southern Sudan, the company cleared more than 5 014 kilometre of roads and removed some 3 300 explosive devices prior to the referendum on independence in late 2010. Following the election of a new government a Mechem team has stayed behind in the country to continue with demining activities.
Teams travel in specially designed mine-resistant vehicles - all variants of the CASSPIR originally designed by Mechem in the 1980, and subsequently upgraded to improve the level of protection to its occupants. The CASSPIR has been the basis for the development of similar mine-protected vehicles used by armed forces across the world.
Technical experts from Mechem also support UN activities in Western Sahara while another contingent is deployed to Somalia where it is responsible for camp management and maintenance activities on behalf of the African Union's peacekeeping force.
In southern Africa, Mechem provides services on a commercial basis in both Mozambique and Angola to help remove the deadly legacy of decades of civil war and armed conflict.