Princess Diana’s landmine legacy 25 years on – the image that saved thousands of lives

When Princess Diana walked through a live minefield wearing little more than a jacket and an anti-explosion mask, she changed the course of history.

The image of the People’s Princess putting her life on the line is perhaps one of the most famous images of her ever.

But the momentous moment – which happened in Angola 25 years ago this week – may never have happened because Diana and the Red Cross initially wanted to highlight the scourge of mines in Cambodia, but the Foreign Ministry deemed the trip too dangerous.

At the time, the Southeast Asian country had an estimated 10 million landmines – and more than 40,000 people lost limbs because of them.

But when the government said it would be too risky for the princess to visit, Mike Whitlam, then director-general of the British Red Cross, suggested Angola – one of the most mined places on Earth – as an alternative.

Diana with children injured by landmines in Luanda


Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Trouble first broke out in Angola in 1975, when it declared independence from Portugal.

The bloody civil war lasted for 27 years, and by the time the violence ended in 2002, an estimated 800,000 people had lost their lives.

Diana’s historic trip to Huambo in January 1997 helped make a wartime commitment to rid the world of landmines.

By the end of that year, 122 countries had signed the Ottawa Convention, which bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel mines and

perpetrate on their destruction. Unfortunately, Diana did not see the signing of the CD because she was killed in a car accident only three months before it happened.

Creative image of Diana bravely walking in a minefield


Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

But the organizations that sought – and still strive – to remove landmines from former war zones have no doubts about the important role they played.

When the historical photographs of Diana were taken in Angola, they were highlighting the work of the HALO Trust – the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian demining organization.

Trust spokeswoman Louise Vaughan said: “Once I took those steps through the minefield, the conversation changed forever.

“When she visited the place, it was dangerous. It was incredibly brave to go there, a complete stop.

What Diana did was make it impossible for any government, particularly the British government, not to support Prohibition.

It wasn’t responsible for the origin of the landmine ban campaign, but it did give it a critical moment. No one can deny that the continued production and use of landmines is abhorrent and must change.”

Kind Diana meets a landmine victim



Diana, in a speech at Luanda Airport in Angola, said the purpose of her trip was to “help the Red Cross in its campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines once and for all.”

Mike Whitlam says it was unusual for a charity to run any kind of campaign at the time. But after members of the organization were killed and injured by mines, she decided to move and push for a ban.

Since Diana was patron of the Red Cross, Mike knew he had an ally who could make this call impossible to ignore – and said the Princess was “helpful” when it came to banning landmines.

Speaking exclusively to The Sunday People, Mike said, “When I started working for the Red Cross in the beginning of 1991 my first visit was almost to go see her. She was a patron that we didn’t take advantage of.

“I said to her, ‘Look, I want you by my side, I want you to be involved really hard. But only when Mike was walking through a live minefield with Diana did he realize the scale of what they were doing.

He said: “We were all nervous about doing the walk, but we knew, I think, that it was going to get global coverage.

Diana wears the emblem of the British Red Cross


Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

“I thought, ‘I’d better walk Diana because if she’s going to blow up, they’d better blow me too because when I come back my life won’t be worth living.'” I thought.

“She was quite adamant that she wanted to do this kind of thing so she could talk about it directly.

“The main goal was to raise the profile of the image. I knew that and that’s exactly what I did. She was instrumental in making this happen globally.

The State Department wasn’t eager, but it didn’t get in its way. I am honored to be a part of it and to have the courage.”

Mike wasn’t the only person in Angola that day who knew how famous Diana’s photos were. Arguably the most famous photograph of the visit was taken by photographer Anwar Hussain.

Anwar has been taking pictures of Diana since she was first linked to Prince Charles in the early 1980s.

Diana sees an injured child in the hospital


Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

But he knew that the moment in the minefield would be special.

The photographer, now 83, said: “It was an extraordinary and unique photo and she was so ready to do it.

“This was after she got done with Charles. She started doing things on her own – she wanted to prove she could do things. People criticized her saying she was doing it to get attention from her husband.

“He called it a loose cannon and all kinds of things like that, but I think she was really interested. I felt really strong about why.”

Soon, Anwar’s photo was spread around the world, along with other shots of Diana visiting people who had lost limbs to landmines.

Countless diplomats and organizations – including the International Campaign to Ban Landmines – have come together to secure the Ottawa Convention.

But to this day, charities say Diana played a pivotal role in raising the issue globally.

Prince Harry visited the same place his mother Diana was


PA wire/PA photos)

“Besides her work on HIV and AIDS, it’s almost certainly Diana’s greatest legacy,” said Louise.

Louise suspects the inspirational moment will appear in the next series of Netflix’s The Crown – and says the HALO Trust would be happy to help the show’s researchers capture the moment authentically.

The charity estimates it has cleared more than 100,000 mines from Angola – Huambo has been declared mine-free, with a modern city now standing on the once perilous land.

The effectiveness of demining was demonstrated in 2019, when Prince Harry returned to the exact place where his mother once walked when he and his brother William were just 14 and 12 years old.

Louise said: ‘Prince Harry was literally walking on the tarmac. There were schools, shops, colleges and kids singing a special song for his mother.

“It was in the same place where Diana walked.”

Although the Ottawa Convention has been very successful in ending industrial production and use of landmines, the HALO Trust is now working to clear IEDs in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

But the organization still has a large presence in Angola, where it continues to make sure the land is safe.

Currently, the HALO Trust employs nearly 700 local men and women and trains some all-female teams to clear landmines, empowering women with additional skills, income, and status.

“How amazing it is that Diana’s legacy remains so meaningful to all my fellow Angolans – born long after her death – who are wearing this flak jacket on a hillside in Angola right now, clearing mines,” said Louise.

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