If Eric makes a mistake, he’ll be dead before he knows it – and that’s a good part of his job.
Eric lives in a country in northern Europe. He’s married, has a natural pool in his garden and a mid-range car with a child seat in the back for his two-year-old daughter. Eric and his family are monitored by his country’s secret services. It’s the full package: they are watched, and their telephone, email and internet activity checked. He knows that he is under surveillance and his wife recently found out too. “The guys keep an eye out for us,” he said, as she spoke to him, somewhat rattled, about the inconspicuous men who had become all too conspicuous on a recent shopping trip.
Eric’s wife knows what her husband does for a living, but his friends, the guys he plays football with twice a week, the neighbours and most of his family members don’t. Eric’s sister thinks that he’s got some administrative job with the army that is so boring it’s not worth talking about. In actual fact, Eric has been little more than a tiny mistake away from death “about 30 or 40 times” in the course of his career. “We only rarely work with more leeway than a couple of millimetres or one wrong decision,” he says.
There are about 1000 experts around the world who can defuse bombs and mines in war zones and conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Africa, and the unexploded bombs that turn up years or even decades after a war is over when a vegetable patch is being laid or a basement dug up. Usually, these mines or remnants of war undergo a controlled explosion or, as they say in the business, are ‘defused conventionally’, that’s to say the bomb disposal expert is at safe cover, wearing a 40-kilo protective suit and protective helmet, using a remote-controlled robot with an extremely precise grappler and X-ray eyes. There are situations when a controlled explosion can’t be carried out and which are beyond the robots’ capabilities.
For example, when a bomb has to remain intact because it could hold clues that would give the perpetrator away. Or because a bomb contains chemical, biological or nuclear materials such as poison gas, killer viruses or radioactivity, which an explosion would release. Or when bombs are in inaccessible locations, such as on a high point above a village in Afghanistan, or on the winding staircase of a town hall in a small European town. Or when kidnappers attach explosives to their hostages, with ‘necklace bombs’ being the most common form. When such cases arise, the services of manual bomb disposal experts are required. Eric is one of about 70 active worldwide. Their working uniform is a T-shirt and their bare hands. No protective suit and helmet required, because there’s no protection available that would do a job if the bombs they’re elbow-deep in go off.
All of the above is true, except Eric isn’t called Eric and he doesn’t live in a northern European country. Eric must remain anonymous: bomb disposal experts are triple-A targets for terrorists. Not only can they defuse the bombs made by terrorists, they could also be blackmailed into making bombs for terrorists, bombs that would be impossible for bomb disposal experts to defuse. Bomb disposal experts can make bombs, which they call ‘deadly bombs’. Terrorists know that. And terrorists read The Red Bulletin too. Hence Eric, hence northern Europe.
Read the full story in August's issue of The Red Bulletin.