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Interview: James Cowan, chief executive of HALO Trust

31 July 2020

‘We’ve just finished clearing mines from the area of the baptism site by the Jordan’

Alison Locke

HALO — Hazardous Area Life Support Organisation — was founded in 1988 in Kabul, during the Soviet withdrawal, by Colin Mitchell, Guy Willoughby, and Susan Mitchell. They had witnessed first-hand the thousands of civilians who were being killed or injured by landmines, and the tens of thousands of refugees who were prevented from returning because of explosive debris in Afghanistan.

HALO’s daily work involves the removal and clearance of explosives designed to kill and maim; but, if you follow rigorously strict safety standards and operating procedures, it’s very safe. We have blast-proof personal protection equipment, and prescribed safety distances when clearing mines.

But problems arise from other reasons, like snake bites. We work in conflict countries; so, sadly, people become victims of the conflict. There are high levels of endemic disease; so we take environmental health really seriously. And we lost two people to a lightning strike in Zimbabwe two years ago. We’re really blessed by having a wonderful board of about 30 NHS medical practitioners — an amazing gang of people — who come out pro bono and oversee our medical standards, and provide training.

As CEO, I lead a global workforce of around 8500 men and women in 25 countries. During normal times, I’m mainly based in Salisbury, Wiltshire, but HALO’s HQ is in Dumfriesshire. I tend to visit around 12 countries a year.

I wanted to do this work because I wanted to make a difference. I had some experience of running large operations in dangerous places, and keeping cool in the process; so that prepared me for what’s involved.

HALO deminers are among the most disciplined, dedicated, and determined people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. They’re all recruited local to the operations; so they’re all personally affected by mines and the debris of war. They spend several weeks in intensive training before they encounter their first minefield.

We don’t just get landmines out of the ground for good — in both senses. We actually create livelihoods, and they are long-term. We’ve been working in Angola for 20 years, for example, and we’ll probably be there for another 20 years.

The worldwide campaign was quite pioneering, and it used ex-soldiers like me; so it was quite male-orientated. I wanted to increase the numbers of women in the organisation. In some countries, such as Angola, we have all-female de-mining teams, but most countries have mixed-sex teams.

The women of the communities we work in are often heads of household, because they’ve been widowed or deserted; so the chance to be deminers has a definite impact on their livelihoods. It’s been possible even in traditional Muslim societies like Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Libya; but, even in very traditional societies like Afghanistan, we can offer women mine-risk education, survey work, and jobs in admin and finance. We’re offering maternity leave and flexible working now.

The pandemic’s had an enormous effect on what we do, but HALO’s a tremendously agile and adaptive organisation. We’re uniquely placed to help deliver a rapid, locally appropriate response to Covid because of our superbly trained workforce and the trust they have in their communities.

We have an extensive fleet of off-road vehicles and ambulances, and a pioneering mapping and GIS capacity; so we can help transport medical personnel and supplies to remote communities, and prepare our ambulances for Covid patients. The mapping tools that we use could also be redeployed from mapping mines and mortars to tracking Covid infections.

But we urgently need funds. OEC countries like the USA, our biggest donor, the UK, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, and Japan give about 90 per cent of our income, and the rest comes from individual donations.

At the moment, 65 per cent of our workforce are still clearing mines, and we have started Covid-related activities in 11 out of the 25 countries where we work, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Somaliland.

We’ve just finished clearing mines from the area of the baptism site by the Jordan. HALO has been clearing landmines from the West Bank since 2014. We were invited by the Israeli authorities to visit the baptism site because of our global reputation for neutrality. When we were invited to conduct the clearance, we also sought support from the Palestinian authorities, as well as from the churches in Jerusalem and the Jordanian government.

When we saw that the churches at the site had been left to decay, and were still surrounded by landmines — and possibly even booby-trapped — we knew that making this sacred site safe would be tremendously worth while. We started raising money in 2016, and completed the work at Easter, with some brief suspensions due to high temperatures or seasonal flooding.

The total area that had to be cleared was just under half a square kilometre: 56 football pitches. We used a mixed team of Georgian, Israeli, and Palestinian deminers, and raised around £2.3 million for the work from the government of Israel, church congregations, philanthropists, and charitable foundations.

We all know our history, and we all have our views about the situation there. It’s like an arthritic joint, with three great religions rubbing up against each other. It’s a raw part of the world which manifests itself in struggle. I don’t think there’ll be any imposed solution to this, but with various Christian denominations working together with Jews and Muslims — eating together, enjoying each other’s company — that’s the ultimate way this problem is going to be resolved: with ordinary human beings realising that they don’t hate each other, and they can do something positive in this world.

There are still more sites to be cleared in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. We’ve been working with the Israeli National Mine Action Authority and the Palestinian Mine Action Centre to clear landmines in the West Bank since 2014. During this time, we have cleared many minefields, enabling families to return and farmers to cultivate their land once more. We hope to continue working closely with the authorities to clear many more.

I come from a military and church family. On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather was Bishop of Salisbury, a great-uncle was Dean of Hereford, and a cousin was the Bishop of Buckingham. My father’s family is Scottish. My ancestor Charles Cowan helped set up the Free Church of Scotland in the 19th century. The Church has always been a part of my life. I live in the countryside, two minutes’ walk from my parish church.

I remember being sent to prep school at the age of seven, and feeling very homesick. My grandmother had given me a King James Bible, and Luke’s Gospel was a source of solace to me then.

I served in the Army for 32 years, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. My regiment, the Black Watch, had its own Kirk session and padre. The value of the padre in a close-knit family regiment was essential to our sense of identity, especially when we suffered casualties.

After three of my soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, leading from the front and rallying morale took a lot of courage. The thing I’m proudest of was commanding my brigade in Helmand at the toughest of times.

Yes, there are lots of things I still want to do. Running the HALO Trust is a huge privilege, and I’d like to help build it into a key part of the new global Britain that emerges from Covid.

Selfishness makes me angry.

My son is an outstanding guitarist, and I love listening to him play.

These seem dark times, but I can only see the bright side. I feel certain that this time of lockdown has forced us all to reassess our priorities, and that the world will feel a very different place on the other side.

I pray most for the health of those I love.

If I was going to be locked in a church with a companion, it would have to be someone who valued the chance for reflection. I don’t want anyone famous, because they might talk too much. Let’s go with the someone already in a church: the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. I’d love to hear his story, and the normality of his life and death.


Major General James Cowan was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.halotrust.org

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