Fri, Jan 03, 2014 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Mine-clearing in the islands proves worthy of risks

By Elaine Hou  /  CNA, with staff writer

Lieutenant Colonel Shi Lu-kuang (施路光) recalled his efforts to clear mines from the nation’s outlying islands beginning in 2006.

Shi described how his years in a military mine-clearing unit in Kinmen County seemed dangerous to most — but not to him: “The more dangerous a job is, the safer it can be.”

Shi is now deputy head of the Army Demining Division, which was established in 2007 and comprised of voluntary military personnel admitted only after they consented to doing potentially dangerous work. Personnel were also required to provide consent from spouses, or if unmarried, parents.

“At that time, I kind of lied to my wife, telling her that it was good to work on Kinmen, a relaxing place,” said the 40-year-old, who has been involved in mine-clearing since 2006, a year before the division was established.

Shi’s wife did not know very much about mine-clearing at first, and Shi took the time to convince her the job is not as precarious as most would expect.

The most dangerous job brings the strictest of demands and safety procedures, he said.

Higher-ranking officers in the division meet every day from Monday to Friday to review the day’s work and discuss how to do it better the next day, he said.

“My wife has come to accept it and recognize it,” he said of the inherent risk faced in his job.

Shi came from the army corps of engineers, where he was trained in demining, but he had never had a chance to put his skills to use until he heard that the army was putting together a demining task force.

Kuo Tai-chu, 25, another member of the division, said the more a person knows about demining, the less worrisome it is.

“You see it as dangerous, but that’s because you don’t understand it,” Kuo said, recalling how he convinced his parents to consent to him joining the operation.

Kuo said he has removed hundreds of mines during his three-and-a-half years in the division.

However, the now-seasoned expert was nervous when he first started.

“I was very nervous. I had to be extremely meticulous, just like an archeologist [with a relic],” Kuo said.

It takes two weeks of basic training and four weeks of advanced training, including training in detecting and removing landmines, to qualify for the position. Training is followed by 256 hours of on-the-job practice in minefields.

“I was extremely nervous [during the training] when our equipment made a sound meaning a metal item had been detected,” Shi said.

However, the perceived mine turned out to be nothing more than a buried beverage container.

“It took me 40 minutes to calm down,” he added.

Kinmen and Matsu previously had extensive minefields along their coastlines, planted by the military in the 1950s and 1960s when tensions were still high with China.

When tension in the Taiwan Strait began to ease, the military drafted plans to clear the mines in the 1990s, Shi said.

Finding mines in Matsu, which like Kinmen lies only kilometers from the Chinese coast, was easier as most of them were planted on cliffs and still unmoved, Shi said.

The challenge was standing on the steep cliffsides while doing the delicate work.

Kinmen was a different story, since most landmines were planted on flat, coastal areas, Shi said.

Over time, mines drifted to new locations due to changing coastlines and tidal patterns.

Shi’s team discovered mines in some hard to imagine places — including, in more than one instance, a mine located directly on top of another mine.

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