For most people, one small error isn't the end of the world. But for those clearing the world of landmines one false move can be the difference between life and death.

Ian Mansfield spent more than two decades in the Australian Army before embarking on humanitarian work for the UN and a Geneva-based company specialising in de-mining. He saw first-hand the mayhem the mines could wreak if anyone was unlucky enough to set one off.

"Once they're in the ground, landmines don't indiscriminate between friend or foe, human or animal, woman or child. They're long-lasting and just wait to do what they were put there to do."

Their intention is to kill and maim - and with about "50 or 60" countries with active de-mining programs there is a need for the sort of work an Australian man was doing on Tuesday when he was killed in Iraq defusing a device planted by retreating Islamic State militants.


The Australian victim, believed to be aged in his late 50s, was leading 30 de-miners from the not-for-profit Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) at Daquq, close to Kirkuk, some 200km north of Baghdad, when he was killed.

Islamic State militants were driven out of Daquq last year but left behind hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Taking on landmines

Mr Mansfield told the danger the mines posed was never far from the minds of those who worked with them each day. The key to it, he said, was "good training, good equipment and good planning".

But sometimes not even that was enough.

"Now a lot of landmine clearance work is done by civilians who train the locals to do it. That gives them a salary and skills and they obviously have the motivation to clear their country because that's the first step before refugees can return."

With his military training behind him, Mr Mansfield managed a team of people clearing landmines. He said the key to their success - and survival - was about risk management. Part of that was knowing what sort of device could lay lurking ahead.

A Turkish soldier uses a landmine detector as he patrols on a road near Yuksekova, southeastern Turkey near the border with Iraq. Photo / Getty Images
A Turkish soldier uses a landmine detector as he patrols on a road near Yuksekova, southeastern Turkey near the border with Iraq. Photo / Getty Images

"Landmines are a fairly standard weaponry for most countries ... [To deal with them] you uncover as much as you need to and put a stick of TNT next to it and blow it up in situ."

The problem occurring now, though, was improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were increasingly encountered. And they are a much larger and more deadly problem.

After reading reports of the Australian man's death in northern Iraq, Mr Mansfield said he suspected the device was an IED.

"They are a lot more difficult and require a higher level of training."

In most cases they were designed to destroy tanks so blowing them up like landmines wasn't always an option.

"So you have to defuse them or move them. And that's the danger, because the trouble is and the people who left them are cunning."

IEDs could also be set off using a mobile phone.

He said humanitarian groups were "pushing the boundaries" when they operated in areas like northern Iraq that had very recently been active fighting zones.

"Most humanitarian organisations wouldn't want to get that close to the action ... tragically in this case it looks like they've been booby trapped."

A Colombian soldier wearing a special protective helmet takes part in a landmine dismantling practice. Photo / Getty Images
A Colombian soldier wearing a special protective helmet takes part in a landmine dismantling practice. Photo / Getty Images

In that sense they were "right on the cusp of where they should be". Those who were former military were trained to accept the dangers to a certain extent.

"But those others, the civilians, then that is doubly tragic."

"Limbs blown off"

There is no typical day when it comes to clearing landmines and he delves into what the mine-clearing life in his book Stepping Into A Minefield.

"If you come across a road, and you think there might be one or two landmines down it, then no one is going to drive down it. It might cut out 10, 20, 30 kilometres of road that people can't use. So you search it and search and find two landmines."

That contrasted with the border between Thailand and Cambodia, which was heavily mined. "There were these border minefields so every couple of metres there would be another mine ... You could collect hundreds of mines in a small area. It just varies."

Using a metal detector was still the most reliable way of finding them, although dogs could also be trained to find them.

"So they're train to sniff out explosives."

Despite the ever-present danger, Mr Mansfield said it was "hugely satisfying" work.

"It's extremely satisfying to train up these teams because they are trying to make their country better and safer to be the supervisor, the instructor, the mentor, of one of these teams."

He can vividly recall seeing some terrible images - including people who'd had limbs "blown off". They were scenes locals "sadly" were quite used to.

"They are used to these sort of situations, of war and death, and it's sad. If someone was killed then the person was buried and they would have the rest of the day off. Next day they were back at work. It's a tough life for some of these people, it's tragic and dreadful."

"Big blast"

Ben Truniger, deputy director of the company the Australian victim worked for, FSD, said the foundation had its last accident six years ago and, like then, the latest one "hit one of the most experienced de-miners we've ever had".

"In our business that's part of the risk, if you're a mountaineer, every now and then one falls down," Mr Truniger told AAP from Geneva.

"Even if you are as professional as you can be, there's always a residual risk."

And on Tuesday morning "one went wrong, and one is enough".

"It was a big, big blast which he has triggered by defusing one of these IEDs so forensic work will be very difficult."

"He was a guru, he was a mentor, he was a trainer, he was a supervisor. You would expect these kind of accidents with anybody but him, that's the tragedy about it," Mr Truniger said.

It's believed he had 30 years experience and had been in Daqug for six months. About 500 explosives have been removed from the Daqug area in recent months.