In southern Senegal, landmines pose a clear and present danger. The violence that rocked Casamance for 30 years is now a distant memory, but the mines laid during the fighting, often on the edges of villages, continue to put people’s lives in danger.
Thirty-one-year-old Fatou Diaw grew up amid this threat, but it became real in 2001. “One of my cousins stepped on a mine,” she explains. “He was only about 20. Both of his feet were torn off in the explosion, and he died a couple of hours later. It had a big impact on me.”
So much so, that in 2008, Fatou responded to a Handicap International job vacancy for deminers. “I didn’t know exactly what the job entailed until I went for my first interview,” she explains. “I liked the idea straightaway.” Out of 12 applicants, only two, including Fatou, were selected. She took a six-week training course and then started her first mission. “I was quite stressed that first week. And I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t find anything. My manager said: ‘Don’t be impatient. You’ll find one.’”
"Deminers like finding mines—just like fishermen like reeling in a fish,” explains the head of Handicap International’s demining team, Charles Coly. “It’s sort of their reward for a job well done. A mine destroyed or deactivated is a life saved. Deminers know how important their work is, and they are proud of it.”
Fatou’s patience paid off. “When I found my first mine, my blood froze and I shrank back,” she recalls. “I called a colleague, who took over. Then I started finding more and more of them, and I got used to it very quickly. Since I started working as a deminer, I have identified more than 50 mines.”
In a region where most women are expected to become full-time homemakers when they have children, a young mother who is also a deminer doesn’t go unnoticed. “A lot of my college friends are surprised when they learn what my aunt does for a living,” explains Fani, Fatou’s 22-year-old niece. “It’s really physical!” Indeed, working under the weight of a heavy uniform built to protect vital organs from a blast, in the heat of the sun, while kneeling and crouching makes this job an uncomfortable and exhausting one.
But the allure is clear to Fatou. “When I’m working, I’m helping a lot of people: people who had to abandon their villages and fields, who were displaced by the fighting, only to return home to find themselves surrounded by mines. I know I’m saving lives.”
Patience is key. “You sometimes work for a long time, and you don’t find anything,” Fatou says. “You often feel tired, but you need to stay focused. If you let your guard down, you could make a wrong move and trigger an accident. You always need to have a clear head and not let your mind wander. It’s really important to be mentally prepared.”
Watching Fatou at work is a sight not to be missed. Concentrated on the job in hand, oblivious to the world around her, and moving with extreme precision, whether she’s handling a metal detector or unearthing a mine, Fatou knows there is no margin for error.
She has had many memorable finds as a result. “I found a mine that was connected to a trip wire,” she says. “It looked very dangerous, but you just have to follow the rules: you take a stick and, without overdoing it, you lightly free it from the plants and follow it to the end, where you’ll find the device, which could be a grenade or an improvised explosive device. We destroyed it.”
After a long day of work, Fatou arrives home on the outskirts of Ziguinchor, the provincial capital of Casamance. After catching up with her two sons, 11-month-old Pabomar and 4-year-old Mamdulami, she makes dinner, and washes her boys before bedtime. Her husband, who works as a tailor in Dakar, comes home once every four months.
Senegal plans to be mine-free by 2021. This year, Handicap International expects to demine 55,000 square meters of land, the equivalent of eight soccer fields, thanks to generous funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.