Zimbabwean experts help keep UK’s Falkland Islands safe

By heraldscotland.com

UNITED Kingdom: Through the lifting mist, the scene is both surreal and hauntingly eerie. Around a corner of the tideline, a group of about 30 Magellanic penguins huddles.

Some 20 yards back, searching through the foggy veil, half-a-dozen men in protective clothing carefully sift the sand for deadly mines.

Thirty-seven years ago, soldiers from Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, planting thousands of the weapons.

British troops may have liberated the islanders, but a few dozen Zimbabweans keep them safe now.

For the past decade, the Zimbabwean contractors have cleared landmines that Argentina’s army laid – and next year the clearance work will finally end.

More than 1,000 lives, including those of more than 250 British soldiers, were lost in the war.

Arbroath-based 45 Commando and the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards were heavily involved, losing 15 service personnel.

The deadly legacy lives on, but is now fading. There are more than 100 minefields flung all across the Falkland Islands.

SafeLane Global was contracted by the British Government to clear the 25,000 mines laid during the Argentinians’ 74-day occupation of the remote British overseas territory in the South Atlantic.

When the conflict ended in 1982, the Argentinians handed over their records.

Since then, demining teams have undertaken the painstaking process of trawling through the documents, sourcing background information from locals and probing into minefields for evidence of potential explosives.

Back in 1999, a company called Bactec, which was one of several to later merge into SafeLane Global, was contracted to clear two million mines along the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Local Zimbabweans were recruited and trained, and they have since become world-renowned for their expertise.

The Zimbabwean experts have been deployed all over the world -— including to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Eritrea, Croatia and Lebanon — to clear mines following devastating conflicts.

There were originally 122 areas to clear in the Falklands, but now there are only about a dozen left.

Once located by a huge digger that sifts through the sand, the mines are either disarmed on the spot and then transferred to a quarry to be burned, or those that are too dangerous to move are destroyed on the spot by explosives.

Deminers work in the Falklands from September to June. There have been no casualties.

Italian SB-81 anti-tank mines, SB-33 anti-personnel mines, Spanish C-3-B anti-tank and P4B anti-personnel mines, American M1 mines and Israeli No 4 and No 6 mines are all among the explosives found and cleared, and in some cases blown up, in the operation.

The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention – also known as the Ottawa Treaty – requires the UK to clear all mined areas under its jurisdiction or control, and this includes the Falklands Islands.

The first glimpse of the islands is of a low-lying green and rocky slither, but as the only town of Stanley comes into view there are platinum white beaches with penguins and a long linear terrace of multi-coloured roofs.

Last year, the Royal Falkland Islands Police announced the arrest at the Mount Pleasant military complex of a contract officer in connection with the possession of controlled drugs.

At Falkland Islands Distillers, Richard McKee is proudly showing off his copper stills, inspired by a set-up in Scotland, to a couple of off-duty military.

All know of Isle of Harris Gin and sing its praises. It seems the group visited the Outer Hebrides as part of the biannual Nato war games Exercise Joint Warrior, but found time to sample the local delights. McKee is now looking at being involved in setting up a whisky production facility too.

The guide is Phil Middleton, who came in 1978 on a three-year contract and stayed on.The introduction of a fisheries conservation zone and fisheries management regime in 1986 transformed the economy of the Falkland Islands.

Falkland Islands Government (FIG) revenue increased by 500%, securing self-sufficiency in all areas except defence and external affairs. Annual revenue from fishing licence fees averaged £20 million for the first 20 years. The fishery accounts for some 40% of GDP.

If you eat calamari in southern Europe there is about a 50% chance it is Falklands squid, according to the Falklands Islands Fisheries Department.

The economy of the Falkland Islands ranks fifth worldwide by GDP per capita – and with the ongoing prospect of oil, it is likely to rise even more.

Brexit is not a topic Middleton wants to go into, but the islands are hedging their bets – the local abattoir slaughters to EU standards but freezes to New Zealand market stipulations.

“The Falklands have 60 nationalities today -– we are our own country,” he states. “We are half the size of Wales or equivalent to the size of Connecticut and we have full employment.”

He adds:“I would not be sat here if I thought there was a chance Argentina would try again.” Pointing to a radar listening post perched on top of a mountain, he says: “See that, it can spot every air movement this side of the Andes.”

Fascinating stop-offs include the scenes of key battles, and the twisted remains of a Chinook helicopter and a Puma gearbox.

However, the funniest myth exploded by Middleton is when Thatcher famously told the Commons that “white flags were flying over Stanley”, marking the Argentinian surrender.

The famous words, spoken by Major Bill Dawson, were quickly communicated back to Downing Street and jubilantly announced in Parliament, to the listening world, by the Prime Minister.

“They were not white flags, but nappies,” says our guide. “They were on the washing line of a new mother.

“There were no white flags. But Margaret Thatcher could not tell Parliament there were ‘white nappies flying over Stanley.’

“The occupying and defending troops were young conscripts that ended up knocking on people’s doors for food. They were starving.

“They were told they were liberating us from the British. They were surprised when they found out the truth,” he says.