Three bombs removed and half a million gets access to water

Pehr Lodhammar is the Senior Programme Manager for United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Iraq. The role includes great pressure from safety and expectations perspective, however also enormous rewards when the locals can return to their home after UNMAS has cleared the area from explosive hazards. UNRIC talked with Lodhammar to hear more about UNMAS’s work, Lodhammar’s journey to the UN, and how the Swedish management style has been to his benefit.

So far, Lodhammar has worked as a Senior Programme Manager in Iraq for three years. Before he started his position at UNMAS in Iraq, he worked in 14 different countries across the globe, and in all of these countries, the focus of work has been on ammunition clearance.

From the Swedish countryside to Iraq

Pehr Lodhammar grew up at a farm on the Swedish countryside and joined the Swedish Armed Forces in 1989. There he became one of the first to be trained in ammunition clearance in Sweden, and since then he has worked with ammunition clearance for almost 30 years before he started his job at UNMAS in Iraq.

Pehr Lodhammar | Photo © UNMAS

When Lodhammar started his job as Senior Programme Manager in Iraq 2017, he understood that it would be a very significant challenge. The explosive hazard problem in Iraq is both complex and extensive.

“Working for UNMAS in Iraq would be a new challenge for me, which was what I was looking for”, says Lodhammar. “When I came to Iraq in 2017, they were defeating ISIS. UNMAS was among the first to enter Mosul, where we were responsible for clearing up critical infrastructures such as hydropower plants, power plants, schools, and hospitals. One of the first places we cleared was what used to be Iraq’s second-largest hospital, which ISIS had taken over and used as their headquarter before they were defeated”, he continues.

In the area, UNMAS found thousands of different objects. From artillery ammunition, hand grenades, and suicide belts.

“We found many bodies from former ISIS fighters. Most of them also wore suicide belts, which meant that we had to take care of the bodies to remove the belts.”

Another great challenge to be aware of is the previous conflicts in the country, but also, the creativity that existed when the ammunition was built.

“It’s not only ammunition from the recent conflict but also from several previous conflicts in the country so the conflict with ISIS has only added another layer of ammunition”, Lodhammar describes. “There were also large amounts of improvised explosive devices, which was new to us. The ammunition we found had not been created from factories like we’re used to but built from what can be found in stores like clocks from microwaves and motion sensors that sense movements. This meant that we had to work differently from what we had done before”, Lodhammar explains.

The role of Senior Programme Manager 

The first two years as the Senior Program Manager for UNMAS meant a lot of work for Lodhammar. He worked seven days a week, 18-19 hours a day, and had very limited sleep. The role included both being out in the field and see how they worked there, and at the same time, he would also seek funding from donors. And all the hard work really paid off.

“In the first year, we went from $ 10 million to $ 76 million in funding, and over 20 countries contributed. We went from 10 employees to over 100 employees so far”, Lodhammar concludes.

Pehr Lodhammar | Photo © UNMAS

Demanding but rewarding work 

Despite the fact that the job includes high risk and great responsibility, it’s a very rewarding job, he states.

“It has a direct effect on people so that they can return to their homes thanks to our work. It’s very difficult for people to return to their homes when there is ammunition in the area. But still, there are 1.38 million people in camps in Iraq waiting to return to where they came from originally and the job ammunition clearance must continue”, he says.

UNMAS cleared 1,800 areas of critical infrastructure for people to return, and close to 67,000 different objects, of which more than 1,200 were suicide belts. UNMAS collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the work for people to be able to return to their homes. When UNMAS had cleared a hospital, a school, or a bridge, it was for UNDP to get there and rebuild it. This meant that Lodhammar had to be sure that they could clear the area on time, but also that it was safe enough for other teams to go there and continue the re-building work.

“We cannot clear a place and then someone gets there experiencing an explosion. Then we have destroyed our trust, so it includes a huge psychological pressure”, says Lodhammar.

The biggest challenge for Lodhammar now is to convince the world that the work needs to continue even if ISIS has been defeated two years ago. Lodhammar and his team need to prove that Iraq still is in need of support to rebuild the region and the country.

Swedish management 

In his role as Senior Programme Manager for UNMAS in Iraq, Lodhammar has had positive results given his leadership style, which he describes, are based on openness and always being available to his staff.

“There are 36 different nationalities working for me, and everyone sees management and leadership in different ways. I believe that the “Swedish” way of leading contributed to the success we have had in Iraq. I always tried to make myself available, to be out in the field with my co-workers, while I also talked to ministers and ambassadors as well. I think it helped to have open and straightforward communication with my employees”, Lodhammar says.

Another factor that contributed to the great success of UNMAS in Iraq was that they dared to try new things and change the focus. It was something that impacted the work of the whole organization.

“We stopped focusing only on the number of mines cleared, and shifted the focus to look at what actually happens afterwards and focused on the outcome in re-built safety. When we, e.g., cleared three terrorist bombs at a water source, we saw that half a million people got access to clean water. We cleared a bridge and removed five bombs, and it turned out after the clearance that there are 6,000 cars and 500 trucks passing there every day. That is what actually counts from a people and societal perspective”, Lodhammar states.

For people who return to their homes after the clearance, UNMAS provides risk education to create awareness. In Iraq, Lodhammar saw the potential to try new things. The majority of Iraqis have a smartphone, which led UNMAS to start using social media, and they started making films with great quality for people who return, one for younger people as teenagers and one for children. They also started using radio and TV more than before, which proved to be successful.


Tips for an UN-career 

To people who want to pursue a career within the UN, Lodhammar has three tips that he always gives to people who want to apply for jobs within the UN.

“The first thing is to learn as many languages as possible. The second is to focus on education. The third is to take care of your teeth”, says Lodhammar and laughs. “When you are out in the field, you don’t have the same access to a dentist as to when you’re home. But the most important is education and language.”

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