In 1989, two brothers – Rae and Lou McGrath – felt compelled to do something to protect people from the crippling and often fatal threat of unexploded landmines. Their solution was to set up MAG, which they ran from a caravan near Cockermouth in England's Lake District.
Photos: Sean Sutton/MAG (unless otherwise stated)
Surrounded by misery and suffering in war-torn Afghanistan, ex-British army engineer Rae witnessed first-hand the horrific impact of landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) on civilians, and recognised the limitations these lethal weapons were placing on reconstruction and delivery of aid.
With seemingly little being done to clear landmines and UXO from the world’s conflict zones, McGrath returned to the UK determined to find ways, with his brother Lou, to protect communities from these lethal weapons.
More than a quarter of a century later, this lifesaving work is still continuing.
MINES ADVISORY GROUP
The name Mines Advisory Group was established in the early days of the organisation, when it was decided that MAG’s initial role would be to draw the attention of the international community towards issues relating to mines and UXO.
Between 1990 and 1991, the McGrath brothers carried out two assessment missions to Afghanistan and Cambodia, hoping that their findings would mobilise governments and international agencies into more purposeful action.
In 1990, war-ravaged Afghanistan was a country of extreme disruption and immense suffering. Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan were being directed back to villages still contaminated by landmines and as a result were being killed or horrifically maimed.
One young Afghan boy left a particular impression on Rae McGrath. “His small body had been absolutely shattered by a Soviet-laid POM-Z fragmentation mine,” he remembers. “When we were at the hospital, his family urged us to take his photograph to show the world the horrific impact of these weapons, which we did.”
The boy died from his injuries hours after. His photograph was later used by MAG to highlight the dangers and deadly consequences of mines.
The second MAG assessment mission took place at a turning point in Cambodia’s history. Newly-signed peace agreements had done little to eradicate the threat of landmines, unexploded bombs and other ordnance left behind by the communist Khmer Rouge, occupying Vietnamese troops and the US Air Force throughout 20 years of conflict.
And with Khmer refugees preparing to make their way home from neighbouring Thailand, Lou and Rae knew it was time to act. “Refugees were returning home and faced the risk of being blown up by landmines and UXO,” says Lou. “They had no idea of what they were coming home to and for us there was a feeling of complete hopelessness.”
Faced with crumbling infrastructure, bombed-out roads and bridges, the two men drove offroad for hours at a time, relying on the help of local guides and interpreters to gather valuable data about the mine and UXO risk to thousands of unwitting civilians.
“There were no records or maps of contaminated areas,” explains Lou. “So we really were starting from nothing.” The Cambodia technical assessment mission would result in a public report entitled “The Cowards’ War”.
In 1991, with the news media dominated by the Gulf War crisis and the growing plight of the Iraqi Kurds, the international advocacy organisation Human Rights Watch approached MAG for help in carrying out an impact assessment of landmines on civilians in the northern areas of the country.
On the orders of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi army had started laying hundreds of new minefields across the Kurdistan region, adding to the many still left over from the brutal Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. And it was civilians, often children, who were bearing the brunt.
After resourcefully hitching a ride into Iraq with aid convoys via southern Turkey, Lou and Rae set about on a mission to determine the extent of the problem. What they found in northern Iraq left a long-lasting impression and their experience was to determine the future of the organisation.
“We saw some absolutely horrific injuries,” remembers Lou. “And what struck us the most was that people were trying to clear the mines themselves with inevitably appalling consequences. It was really at that point that the idea of providing Mine Risk Education [MRE] to those at risk came about. People needed to understand what they were up against.”
SALAAM, ONE OF MANY HEROES
The idea of providing MRE was not the only positive outcome of the 1991 assessment to Iraq. By 1992 MAG, now bestowed with formal charity status, set up a permanent base in the war-torn country.
MAG’s first national employee was Iraqi-Kurd Salaam Mohammed who, in 1992, volunteered to sign up to the inaugural demining training course. Having fled to the Iranian border, Salaam and his family returned home to a heavily mined village, and were witnesses to the horrors of mine and UXO injuries within their increasingly desperate communities.
"I really wanted to help my people, who were living without hope," he remembers. Salaam is still employed with MAG in Iraq and holds the senior role of Technical Field Manager.
"I have learned about a great many different types of landmine and unexploded ordnance over the last 20 years," he says. "But, without doubt, the greatest achievement is when I return to places that were cleared years ago and think about the lives that have been saved."
INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN TO BAN LANDMINES
In 1992, MAG joined forces with Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Handicap International, Physicians for Human Rights and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, to form the lobbying coalition International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).
The many years devoted to campaigns, research and lobbying against the arms trade were to pay off in 1997 when the Ottawa Treaty – which banned the production and use of anti-personnel mines – was signed by 122 countries.
“This was a huge achievement,” says Lou McGrath. “For the first time, grass-roots, civil society organisations had had a real influence on policy-makers, and human suffering had been put before military and defence considerations.”
Later that year, the ICBL jointly received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its efforts in eradicating the threat of anti-personnel landmines.
Against the backdrop of the intensive campaigning was the growing involvement of Diana, Princess of Wales, in the global landmine issue. Before her untimely death in August 1997, the Princess had been actively speaking out against the production and use of landmines and made several visits to affected countries, such as Angola.
The Princess developed close ties with MAG and was the keynote speaker at a MAG photographic exhibition in London two months before her death.
Photo: Gary Trotter
IT'S GOOD TO TALK
In the late-1990s, MAG pioneered a new approach: Community Liaison.
Community Liaison teams – made up of local people – find out about landmines and unexploded ordnance problems by asking those affected. The teams are the eyes and ears of MAG, giving us real insight into how people’s lives are threatened and hampered by landmines and explosive weapons.
They make sure MAG’s clearance work has maximum impact and focuses on where the need is greatest.
Alongside valuable clearance efforts, MAG strove to involve and empower local communities as much as possible, through training and employment, and by challenging many of the perceptions and stigmas attached to disability and gender. In both Cambodia and Laos, women and people with handicaps were generally regarded as second-class citizens and relegated to the lowest strata of society.
Employing women and amputees in clearance teams was a pioneering way of bringing those in the so-called lower classes into the ranks of the middle class.
Pioneering is indeed one way of summing up 20-plus years of MAG.
With the work of many other aid and reconstruction agencies dependent on safe and cleared areas, MAG is often one of the first agencies into conflict zones, sending emergency response teams into Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.
Setting new international standards for humanitarian mine clearance and introducing innovative concepts – such as Mine Risk Education, Community Liaison, flexible multi-skilled Mine Action Teams and ‘locality demining’ (employing and deploying people locally, enabling them to work close to their homes) – MAG has evolved from a two-man team into a major international operation.