Obituary

Johan de Haan: Ex-army expert in clearing landmines

10 February 2019 - 00:00 By Chris Barron

Johan de Haan, who was killed in a landmine explosion in Yemen last month at the age of 48, had been clearing landmines and anti-personnel mines from war-torn countries around the world since 2002.
He was one of five de-mining specialists, including another South African, Pieter Schoeman, who were killed in the central Marib province of Yemen while transporting mines they had disarmed to a remote location where they could be safely detonated. The others were from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
De Haan was a project manager for UK-based company SafeLane Global, which was contracted by the King Salman Foundation of Saudi Arabia to clear mines laid by Iran-backed Houthi rebels during their four-year war against a Saudi-led coalition.
He had been in Yemen for just under seven months, during which time he and the team he led cleared 33,000 mines.
De Haan, a former major in the engineering corps of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), was born in Cape Town on March 7 1970 and grew up in Brakpan on Gauteng's East Rand.
After matriculating at Hoërskool Stoffberg he joined the military in 1989. After completing a four-year course at the school of engineers in Kroonstad - where he specialised in mine clearance - followed by an officer's course, he became a squadron commander in 2 Field Engineering Regiment, the SANDF's specialist mine-clearing unit in Bethlehem in the Free State.
He retired from the army in 2002 and began working for firms contracted mainly by the UN to clear mines in the worst-affected countries. Over the next 16 years he led mine-clearing operations in Angola, Mozambique, Sudan, Croatia, Afghanistan, Lebanon and other countries.
He developed a particular hatred for anti-personnel mines after witnessing the carnage they caused among local populations, often children, going about their daily lives.
"When the war's over the soldiers pack up and go home, leaving the local people to bear the brunt," he said.
While in Angola he encountered a young girl who had lost both legs, an arm and her eyesight after stepping on an anti-personnel mine. He brought her a Braille machine from SA, which he'd had modified so it could be used with one hand.
He lost his right arm and the hearing in his right ear in 2004 when an improvised explosive device was detonated next to his vehicle in Afghanistan. He owed his life to prompt action by the US military. Though the company he was working for at the time was contracted by the UN and had nothing to do with the Americans, the US army evacuated him by chopper and put him on a plane to a Nato hospital in Germany that specialised in the treatment of blast victims. Within 24 hours he was in the operating theatre.
Being ambidextrous, the loss of an arm did not affect his ability to disarm mines, and within months he was back at work, though in more of a supervisory capacity. Much of his time was spent training local volunteers.
After his near-death experience in Afghanistan, De Haan became a born-again Christian.
He'd typically spend three months in the field and then two weeks at home in Bloemfontein with his wife Adri and son Johandré, who is blind as a result of being born prematurely, and with whom Johan had an exceptionally close bond.
They would spend hours lying on their beds listening to the radio together. It was De Haan's favourite way of de-stressing.
A calm, level-headed and emotionally stable person, he seldom spoke about his job or the ever-present threat of death. He talked more about the local people he met and the places he saw.
He spent 2003 in southern Lebanon - which had been a war zone while occupied by the Israeli Defence Forces - locating, disarming and removing the landmines and anti-personnel mines that Hezbollah had sown liberally over the area.
What struck him most were the beautiful vineyards, olive groves and orchards stretching as far as the eye could see, but without anyone working them because they were so full of mines.
In Yemen, too, he said, it was the most fertile areas that were targeted for mines, specifically to prevent local people from feeding themselves and their families. Millions are starving in Yemen.
The real damage of war lasts long after the fighting ends, De Haan noted. He saw the results and it fuelled his determination to undo as much of that damage as he could.
He is survived by Adri and Johandré, who is in his third year at university. 1970-2019..

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