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The Telegraph

Bobby Charlton campaigns against landmines
By Alison Kervin

It was a simple enough brief: to travel to Bosnia and visit a football camp for children injured by landmines. Sir Bobby Charlton had seen charitable projects like that many times before. It was nothing out of the ordinary. But by the time he returned from this particular trip last year, the experience had changed his life for ever.

"I'd seen kids with limbs missing; I'd watched children try to dig up landmines in the ground with their fingers and old knives. It was horrific. Horrific," he says.


Man with a mission: Bobby Charlton was 'shaken to the core' after visiting a camp in Bosnia

"It's going to take them hundreds of years to remove the mines by hand like that. Hundreds of thousands more children are going to get hurt. I got on the plane home and I was crying, I admit. I just sat there thinking, 'There must be something I can do, there must be something...'."

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and Charlton is standing in a disused quarry in Lancashire. He is surrounded by bomb disposal experts and leading scientists from Manchester University. They pull their jackets tightly around them, blowing into their hands against the cold breezes that scuttle through this remote place. Some have cameras and some have notebooks; all are watching intently while mentally summing up the huge challenge that has been set by the footballing legend.

Suddenly a colossal boom shakes the morning air, jolting the ground and reverberating through the rocks around us. Charlton leaps up like a jack-in-the-box, his face distorted with disbelief. "Goodness me," he declares, genuinely distressed. "I'm too old for all this."

Scarlet and orange flames burst into the sky in front of him, and a green Wellington boot shatters into dozens of pieces. The World Cup winner drops his head into his hands.

"That's what happens," he says, as the men stand silently and look at the devastation caused to a medium-sized rubber boot by a medium-sized landmine. "Imagine if a child had been wearing that boot…"

Birds screech through the sky away from the mayhem. The toes of the boot lie almost 100 metres from the point of the explosion. As a bomb disposal expert hands it to Charlton, it is almost more than he can bear. "We've got to stop this happening," he says, tears in his eyes as he speaks. "We've got to."

In the period since Charlton returned from the Laureus Spirit of Soccer camp in Bosnia last year, shaken to the core, he has been true to his promise to help with the detection and eradication of landmines. He is happy to take up the mantle of Princess Diana, by trying to raise awareness and, more substantially, to work with experts on the development of a system that will detect and eradicate landmines simply and safely, without the need for young children to clutch battered knives and perilously prod the scorched earth for signs of metal.

Charlton flew back to England "buzzing with the need to help in some way" and contacted a friend at Rapiscan, the company which manufactures the metal detectors used at airports. "I thought they might be able to help since metal detection was, basically, what we needed to do," he points out.

It also struck Charlton that all airports all over the world have metal detectors, so there must be some infrastructure in place that they may be able to tap into, to transport and maintain any detection equipment that could be manufactured.

Rapiscan led him to contact a group of the country's leading scientists and mathematicians from Manchester University. They had been working to help create a new 3D metal detecting device for airports. Could they extend their skills to creating a device that would detect landmines safely?

"They're brilliantly intelligent," says Charlton of the group of professors standing around us. As if on cue, one of them has an idea. "We need to lay a blanket over the mines first," he says. "Kevlar?"

The other scientists look up. Kevlar is the material used to make the safety jackets worn by police when they go into hostile situations.

"If we roll out a sheet of materials coated in Kevlar, we can hit through it to explode the mines without anyone getting hurt," he adds.

"How practical is that?" asks one scientist.

"How heavy? How easy to transport? How expensive?"

The questions come thick and fast.

"Amazing aren't they?" says Charlton, smiling lovingly at the scientists as if they were toddlers who had just learnt to ride a bike. "Look at them go."

Charlton says he is confident that he will be able to help. He does not know whether he will be able single-handedly to end the problem of landmines but he does know that he will not stop trying until he has made a difference.

"I've called the project 'There Must Be A Better Way'," he says. "Because there really must be a better way for these people to live their lives. Seeing youngsters without limbs just getting on with their life is hard to take. It is awful to think that so many years after the fighting has ended people are still being maimed."

Since the Bosnia experience, he has also attended a second footballing camp, in the minefields near Battambang in Northern Cambodia. It is one of the most dangerous places in the world. Three decades of war mean that landmines now litter the country, giving it one of the highest rates of physical disability in the world. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates that there are four to six million mines and pieces of unexploded ordinance in Cambodia. As many as 98 per cent of mine casualties are civilian, more than 6,000 villages are badly affected and more than five million people are at risk.

"I was away on a Manchester United trip when I got a call asking if I'd go along to the Cambodia project. When I walked out of there, it just confirmed what I'd thought after Bosnia, and I knew I had to do something to help them. I knew I had to do it quickly, too."

There are almost half a million landmine survivors, but the fear is that the same number again will be maimed or killed if something is not done to help. "It cannot be right that basic access for people to water, food and land to farm can be so hazardous. At the rate they are working, it could take another 100 years to clear all the mines from Cambodia," he says.

"How many more young people are going to suffer horrific injuries in that time? That is a terribly depressing thought."

The day in the quarry is over. The men with the practical knowledge of explosives have explained to the scientists how landmines work, and the scientists prepare to travel back to Manchester to begin the laborious testing process, which they hope will lead to a practical solution to the problem.

If the professors can combine their intellects to create a new way of detecting and eradicating the mines which sit beneath the soil in the world's poorest countries, they will save hundreds of thousands of lives and change the lives of tens of millions of people.

The magnitude of the task is not lost on them but there is a deep sense of determination to have a basic model by the end of the year. They will be supported in the project by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation - organisers of the 'Spirit of Soccer' camps that kicked off Charlton's passion.

"Have you been watching any of the football?" asks one of the scientists, referring to Euro 2008, eager to lighten the mood.

"Aye," says Charlton in his distracted way. "I think it's good that England aren't there."

Everyone looks up at Charlton, urging him to explain. "England have some great players, but what's sometimes lacking is the confidence. When an international team haven't won anything for a long time, a lack of confidence can easily set in. By sitting this tournament out, they'll realise that they're just as good as the teams that are competing. It'll lift morale before the World Cup qualifiers. I believe that.

"I think it's a good thing that they're having to watch it. If they stop and think, they'll see that they should be there and they won't want to miss out again. They'll want to be back in there, playing against the best in the world in an England shirt."

There are nods and smiles at the thought of England returning to the world order.

"Here," says a bomb-disposal expert, walking towards Charlton and clutching something under his arm. He hands over the rubber heel of the boot to go with the toes which Charlton already has.

"Last time I saw a boot fly through the air like that it was against Bolton," he says, trying to keep the conversation light. "Bloody Tommy Banks."

Then he walks back to his car in silence, still holding the piece of rubber in his hands.

Sir Bobby Charlton is a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy, which uses sport as a means to improve the lives of young people. 'Spirit of Soccer' in Cambodia is one of more than 60 humanitarian projects the Laureus Foundation supports around the world.

-Well, we all knew he was an amazing guy.

But still, this is incredible.

My full respect to Sir Bobby for this.
 
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