The minefield incident report
31 Οκτωβρίου , 2010
To: Chief Operations & Plans Officer, Mission Headquarters (MHQ)
From: Commander, TS Oum Dreyga
Date: Dec 10, 2009 07:03AM
cc: Chief of Staff, MHQ; Military Assistant to the Force Commander, MHQ; Mine Action Coordination Centre, MHQ; Commander, TS Mijek; Commander, TS Agwanit; Commander, TS Awsard; Commander, TS Mehares; Commander, TS Tifariti; Commander, TS Bir Lahlou; Commander, TS Smara; Commander, TS Mahbas; TS Oum Dreyga
Subject: Minefield incident of 08 Dec 09, TS Oum Dreyga – REPORT
Please find below my report on the subject incident.
All times are approximate and with some uncertainty.
A. PRELIMINARIES & BACKGROUND INFORMATION
On 08 Dec 09, Hawk Patrol from Teamsite Oum Dreyga was tasked to visit areas 01 & 02 of Subsector Guelta Zemmour in a priority «1» patrol. It was also tasked to establish a night observation post (NOP) in Area 02.
Patrol leader: Lt (N) Jairo LAINEZ (under training)
1st driver: Maj Slava MESCHERYAKOV
2nd driver: Maj Igor BURIYAN (also under training)
Patrol left teamsite at 08:05. We arrived at NOP position at about 17:00, after nine (9) hours of driving/visiting units.
We had in mind to use as NOP position a flat area, close to the headquarters of 1 BIM/1 RIM, between waypoints T4 and T5. It has been used several times in the past as an NOP position for our patrols. We visited the commander of 1BIM/1RIM, informed him about our intentions and consulted him about mine safety of the area. He assured us that the area was safe and free of mines. Needless to say, the area is not designated as mine-suspected in our maps.
We selected for our NOP a point about 1.5 km from 1BIM/1RIM and about 150m off-track. We informed the teamsite about our exact position via the satellite phone (radio communication was impossible), and we received an additional task for the next day: to visit GZ09 and ask for some clarifications regarding an allegation for one jeep with weapons moving in the buffer strip. We started unloading the equipment and preparing our tent.
B. THE INCIDENT
At about 17:30, the patrol leader walked away for a distance of about 20m from our position. He called me, asking to go there and see something, which I did. What I saw, was an almost circular formation of stones, with a diameter of about 0.5m. The stones were encircling 7 or 8 antipersonnel mines, some of them almost buried, some half-buried, and some just laid on the ground. You can find some pictures attached. In the meanwhile, the other two patrol members had joined us.
My first thought was to order everyone to collect the equipment, get in the cars and move out of there. Almost immediately, I had second thoughts: I did not consider the place safe enough to move with the cars back to the main track. So, I gave instructions to return to the cars with minimal movement and extreme care, get in, wear our protective gear and inform the teamsite about our situation. Which we did. We did not make any attempt to collect the equipment we had already unloaded from the vehicles.
From that point on, we remained in the cars, wearing the flack jackets, and communicating between us with the VHF radio (in any case, the cars were close enough, so we could communicate even by voice, shouting) and with the teamsite via the satellite phone.
We informed the teamsite about our situation at about 18:00. We set up communication in regular time intervals – 15 mins after the first report, 20 mins after the second contact, 30 mins after the third contact etc. In our second communication, we were informed that, apart from the Mission Headquarters, the liaison officer of Subsector Oum Dreyga had also been alerted, and he would contact Subsector Guelta Zemmour to report our situation. Eventually we were told that the commander of 1BIM/1RIM was informed, but they could not move during darkness, and they would come for recovery with the first light. We were also informed that no action from the Mission Headquarters should be expected during darkness. We prepared to spend the night there. As I have already said, we were already in the cars, wearing our protective gear. We were not in a direct danger. Situation was stable.
At about 20:30, we saw a car coming. We switched on our lights, to indicate our position. The car approached, and the commander of 1BIM/1RIM came out and walked towards my vehicle. When he reached me, his very first words -I would like to stress that- were: «What’s the problem? Area is completely safe!»
I explained the situation and our finding. He invited me to show it to him. I hesitated to step out of the car, but he was insisting, looking very confident and keeping on assuring me that the area -after all, his area- was completely safe. In the meanwhile, 4-5 Moroccan soldiers were already around us, walking.
Under these circumstances, I decided to step out of the car and lead him to our finding. I kept my protective equipment on. I ordered the rest of the patrol members to remain in the vehicles.
Together with the commander of the 1BIM/1RIM and his soldiers, we walked towards the finding. I stopped in a safe distance, pinpointing it with my torchlight. He approached close, examined the finding, and then removed the mines with the antenna of his handheld radio. The mines just fell apart.
«No mines», he told me smiling. «Rubbish!»
After that, and the commander’s assurances for the safety of the area, I ordered the patrol members to step out of the cars and collect our NOP equipment. We coordinated our moving out with the commander: the Moroccan Army car went in front; second was my car (i.e. the 2nd vehicle of the patrol); third, the 1st vehicle of the patrol (i.e. the one with the patrol leader under training). That way, and with every vehicle following in the tracks of the Moroccan Army car, we drove out of the place for the 150m that were separating us from the main track.
Once back in the main track, and after informing the teamsite about the change in our situation, the commander offered us two possibilities: either to spend the night in his unit, as his guests, or to allow us to camp in the helipad of his unit. I very kindly declined his first offer. So, we were led to the helipad, and we set up there our NOP position.
At that point, with the emergency situation behind us, I relieved myself from the leading duties, handing them back to the patrol leader under training. We proceed with the usual procedures of the NOP, starting with informing the teamsite about our new exact position.
Next day in the morning, while continuing our patrol, we passed by our initial position. Moroccan soldiers were there, searching the place with mine detectors and other relative equipment. We saw again the commander of 1 BIM/1 RIM and had a short discussion. He told us that our finding of last night was «old mines».
We successfully completed the rest of our patrol tasks, including the additional one in GZ09, which was not included in our initial, preplanned route. We came back to teamsite at about 15:00, having spent almost thirty one (31) hours out.
C. SOME REMARKS AND AN ASSESSMENT
At first instance, it may seem that my instructions to the patrol members, of walking back to the cars after our discovery, violated the basic principle of a minefield situation («freeze, cease all movement»). Of course, it was not like that.
We were facing a situation and a finding that is described in no training handbook and no safety briefing: a finding that had all the characteristics of a temporarily marked unexploded ordnance (UXO). But, in this case, the UXO’s were mines.
I was confident enough that we were not in an actual minefield: we had not seen any «free» mines; local Moroccan commander had assured us that the area was mine-free; it had been used several times in the past as an NOP position; there were vehicle tracks around.
It should be obvious that, under such circumstances, expressions like «I ordered» or «I gave instructions» are not exactly accurate. True, I was in command and I had already taken my decision. But before proceeding, before moving and while still standing there, I discussed it with my team members. Maj Mescheryakov is a «veteran» of the mission, moving to Laayoune next Friday for outprocessing, after twelve (12) months in two different teamsites; even Maj Buriyan, although still under training here, has some experience with mines from his service in Russian Army. I announced them what I had in mind, explaining my rationale and my assessment of the situation, and I asked them about their opinion. Nobody objected. Nobody came up with an alternative proposal. Everyone agreed that what I had in mind was the most appropriate way to proceed, under the given circumstances.
Once back in the cars, to try to cover the 150m that separated us from the main track was a risk that I considered completely unnecessary, and therefore unacceptable.
During these 3,5 hours that we found ourselves in this emergency situation, the behaviour of all three patrol members touched really high peaks of discipline and professionalism. There was not a single moment of panic or anxiety. We were calm, fully supportive and fully cooperative to each other. We were fully aware of our situation, and confident that in the morning the Moroccan Army would come to rescue us (actually, this is almost exactly what happened; the only difference with our estimations was the time of their arrival).
Similar was the feeling I was getting during my communications with the teamsite. Maj Yaser FARIED, operations officer and acting deputy, handled our communication with exceptional professionalism. And I am sure he handled in the same way more than the communication between us. Of course I was not in the teamsite; but the feeling I was getting during my communications, including the occasional chat I would have with the duty officer that happened to pick up the phone, was that of a teamsite which, although alerted and aware of the criticality of the situation, remained stable, well-ordered and far away of what could be described with terms such as panic or confusion.
To all of them, patrol members and people back it the teamsite, I am deeply grateful. They are a great team, and I feel proud and honored to live and work along with them.
That said, there was a single moment where, during my communication with the teamsite, I felt puzzled and confused. It was when they informed me that the Chief Operations & Plans Officer had ordered that I relieve the patrol leader-under-training from his leading duties, and I get in charge of the situation. That not only puzzled me; it worried me. Of course, it was not a fault of the teamsite.
Now that I recall the events, I can say that it was the single one terrifying moment of the whole situation.
Last but not least: if anyone, looking at the attached photos, would like to comment that we overreacted, that it was apparent that these things can not be mines, or that they were already marked, so there was not any danger, me and the rest of the patrol members would be more than happy to know it.
D. CONCLUSION & SUGGESTIONS (SHORT AND LONG-TERM)
It is clear from the above, at least to myself, that the very concept of NOP should be thoroughly re-examined. In any case, I cannot see how it can be compatible with another basic (maybe the most basic) principle of our patrolling: always stay on tracks. It should be apparent that 1) you are never safe anywhere out of tracks (I remind you the Moroccan soldiers searching the place they were assuring us it was «safe») and 2) you can not establish NOP on a track. The NOP execution instructions mentioned in the Standing Operational Procedures (SOP’s) («Select suitable vantage point/points as observation posts within range of 300m to the Observation Base and select foot routes to be used during the night «), although reasonable-looking in some office of a headquarters, are simply out of any serious consideration when you are out there. Out there simple rules apply. Safety first. Period.
After all, the NOP has long ago ceased to have any operational benefit (if it ever had). Patrol leaders have been selecting the NOP positions solely with the criterion of safety: that means, the closest possible to a Moroccan unit – if possible, just outside the perimeter! Personally, I cannot blame such a decision. There are thousands of things that can go wrong during an NOP, things that have not necessarily to do with mines: snake and scorpion bites are the first things that come to mind. And of course, if you set your camp just outside the perimeter of a unit while informing the commander, you can not seriously expect that there will be any kind of troops or equipment movement during the night, that you could observe and it would constitute any kind of violation. Everybody can wait, at least until tomorrow that you will leave. Nobody is that stupid (at least I hope so; I honestly do).
Most important, it has been proved that, once out in the field and in case of an emergency, especially during night, the only assistance you can rely upon will come from the Moroccan Army. The recent case of the UNMO injured in teamsite Oum Dreyga during sport activities is instructive: shortly after the incident, and with the night coming, I was approached informally by the helicopter crew: «Christos, if you think we have to evacuate him, we must do it right now, before darkness.» «Why», I asked, «you can not fly during night?»
The discussion, I repeat, was completely informal. Hypothetical. But the answer I received, was «no»! I never got back to them, to clarify further. Maybe I felt uncomfortable to get to know that, during night, the helicopter, even if taking off from a well-established helipad like Oum Dreyga, even if going to a real airport like Laayoune, cannot be trusted to fly.
Abandoning the NOP concept altogether will leave us with another practical problem, particularly in teamsites with huge areas of responsibility, like Oum Dreyga and Awsard: there are patrols so long that you simply cannot perform them during one day. Truth is, practically the NOP’s serve now simply as two-day patrols, in order to be able to cover distances like the 480km we need to get to our northernmost area and come back. But, of course, the solution in this problem is easy: you simply establish certain, pre-determined positions in your area, in cooperation with the Moroccan Army, positions that will be used solely for that purpose. No more need for «frequent change of [NOP] positions» (SOP’s, Night Operations). These positions can be really thoroughly checked for mines, and they can be as close to Moroccan units as desirable, without jeopardizing the mission. Safety risks reduced to a minimum. Everyone is happy.
In any case, the long-term status of our NOP’s will be one of the first problems for the new teamsite commander in Oum Dreyga. This is not my problem. At the end of the day, me am just an acting. I was appointed with a clear, albeit implicit, mandate: keep the place up and running, until we are able to appoint a real commander. And this I did. The place is up and running. The morale is high. The team spirit has reached really high peaks. Mandate fulfilled. No more need for interim solutions. I can go now.
In the meanwhile, and in the short term until the teamsite obtains a real commander, I cannot allow further safety risks for the men. As long as I remain in charge here, NOP’s in all areas will be established with sole criterion the safety of the personnel involved. If this means camping inside Moroccan units, so let be done. Even in a case of a «mild» incident, i.e. without casualties or injuries, I have to protect my patrol leaders from clever questions posed by boards of inquiry («Yes, but why did you leave the track?»).
. . .
I remain as always at your disposal for any further information or clarifications you may require.
My fellow teamsite commanders: you receive a cc of this report. You are kindly requested to inform your personnel, at least about the facts (para B) and the photos. We all know the way rumours spin around!
ext. 5915, 5911