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Johana, 25: team leader of six mine clearance experts

Explosive weapons
Colombia

Johana, 25, has been clearing mine-contaminated land in Colombia for four years. With a look of self-assurance, she coordinates a team of six Handicap International (HI) mine clearance experts, some of whom are twenty years older than she. She talks about her work below.

Johana | ©Jules Tusseau/HI

Why did you become a mine clearance expert?

When I was little I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to care for people and help them. I left college at 15. By the time I was 18, I was already a mother. And then I started to think about it more seriously. The violent conflict that affected our country for so many years has left a deep impression on me. I worked for an American mine clearance organisation for several years and then applied for a job with Handicap International. And since 2017, I’ve been the leader of a team of six mine clearance experts in the departamento of Cauca, in Cajibío. In four years I’ve found four mines. It’s really painstaking work. You need a lot of patience and an eye for detail. 

What’s your role?

I need to supervise the work of the mine clearance experts: I make sure they keep their masks on, check that they stick to the regulation distance between each other and take their time prodding the earth, and so on. I coordinate their work. I also need to check that they’re in good health and psychologically fit because it requires a lot of concentration.

Where did you start your mine clearance operations?

We started our operations in July in the municipality of Cajibío (Cauca), where we cleared 411 sq.m of land along the Pan-American Highway. The work was complicated by the noise from the road, which made it impossible to hear the sound of the metal detectors, and by waste metal on the ground, so we couldn’t use them. The mine clearance experts had to cut the grass and prod the ground by hand, which made it longer and more tiring. We’ve destroyed one improvised explosive device, which the team is really proud of. We’ve helped save lives. 

How do you manage your fear on a daily basis?

Fear? You feel it all the time. Most importantly, you need to follow the safety guidelines. And to do things step by step, take your time and not rush things. I’m confident.

Is it easy juggling your work as a mine clearance expert with your role as a wife and mother?

No, it’s not easy. I see my children and my husband, Dio Medis, who’s a mine clearance expert in the municipality of Corinto, every six weeks. My sister looks after our children. They cry a lot and ask for us. I call them every day. I really miss them. But I’m thinking of their future. They’re one of the reasons - the main reason - I’m here.

Is it hard to gain respect as a women, a leader and a mine clearance expert?

It’s always a challenge to manage a team - but it’s the same for men too. They respect me for my skills: I’m clear, straight to the point, firm and I listen. A lot of people think women shouldn’t tell men what to do. There are a lot of mine clearance experts who are much older than me on my team, and who used to be soldiers. We respect each other. What’s really important is to be convincing. 

If you weren’t a mine clearance expert, what would you be?

A florist. There’s the same contact with nature, the desire to protect our planet and to make something beautiful out of it. 


 

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