When Princess Diana walked through a living minefield wearing little more protection than a vest and blast 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 iconic photos ever taken of her.

But the momentous moment – which took place in Angola 25 years ago this week – might never have happened as Diana and the Red Cross originally wanted to highlight the scourge of landmines in Cambodia, but the Foreign Office considered such a trip too dangerous.

At the time, the Southeast Asian country had around 10 million landmines – and more than 40,000 people had lost limbs to them.

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







Diana with landmine injured children in Luanda
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Unrest first broke out in Angola in 1975, when it declared independence from Portugal.

A bloody civil war raged for 27 years and by the end of the violence in 2002, an estimated 800,000 people had lost their lives.

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

And by the end of that year, 122 countries had signed the Ottawa Convention prohibiting the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel mines and

commit to their destruction. Sadly, Diana never saw the disarmament treaty signed as she was killed in a car accident just three months before it happened.







An iconic image of Diana bravely walking through a minefield
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But organizations that have worked – and still work – to remove landmines from former war zones have no doubt of the important role it has played.

When Diana’s historic photos in Angola were taken, she was highlighting the work of The HALO Trust – the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian demining organization.

Trust spokeswoman Louise Vaughan said: ‘Once she took those steps through that minefield, the conversation changed forever.

“When she came, it was dangerous. It was an act of incredible bravery that she went there, period.

“What Diana did was stop any government, especially the UK government, from not supporting the ban.

“She wasn’t responsible for initiating the campaign to ban landmines, but she gave it a critical moment. No one could deny that the continued production and use of landmines was abhorrent and needed to change.







Kind Diana meets a landmine victim
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In a speech at Angola’s Luanda airport, Diana 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 the charity to run any type of campaign at the time. But after members of the organization were killed and injured by landmines, she decided to take action and push for a ban.

As Diana was a Red Cross patron, Mike realized he had an ally who could make that call impossible to ignore – and said the Princess was ‘instrumental’ when it came to ban landmines.

Speaking exclusively to The Sunday People, Mike said: ‘When I started at the Red Cross in early 1991 almost my first visit was to go see her. She was a boss we hadn’t made use of.

“I said to him, ‘Listen, I want you by my side, I want you to be very heavily involved’.” But it wasn’t until Mike was walking through an actual minefield with Diana that he realized the extent of what they were doing.

He said: “We were all nervous about doing the walk, but we recognised, I think, it would benefit from global coverage.







Diana wearing a British Red Cross badge
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“I thought, ‘I better walk with Diana because if she’s gonna blow herself up, they better blow me up too because when I come back, my life won’t be worth living.

“She was pretty adamant about wanting to do this kind of thing so she could talk about it firsthand.

“The goal was to raise the profile. She knew it and that’s exactly what she did. She was instrumental in its achievement on a global scale.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not enthusiastic, but it did not interfere. I am very honored to have been part of it and to have had the courage.

Mike wasn’t the only person in Angola that day who knew how iconic Diana’s photos would become. Photographer Anwar Hussein arguably captured the most famous image of the tour.

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







Diana sees an injured little girl in the hospital
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But he knew that the moment in the minefield was going to be special.

The photographer, now 83, said: ‘It was quite an unusual and unique photo and she was very willing to do it.

“It was right after she was 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 to divert her husband’s attention.

“She was called loose cannon and all sorts of things like that, but I think she was really interested. She was very attached to the cause.

Anwar’s photograph was quickly shared around the world, along with other snaps of Diana visiting people who had lost their 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 has played a pivotal role in bringing the issue to the fore around the world.







Prince Harry visited the same place his mother Diana had been
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Louise said: “Along with her work on HIV and AIDS, this is almost certainly Diana’s greatest legacy.”

Louise suspects the inspirational moment will feature in Netflix’s upcoming hit series 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 removed more than 100,000 mines from Angola – and Huambo has even been declared mine-free, with a modern city now standing on once perilous land.

The effectiveness of mine clearance was demonstrated in 2019, when Prince Harry returned to the exact spot 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, stores, colleges, and children singing a specially composed song to his mother.

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

While the Ottawa Convention has been extremely successful in ending the industrial production and use of landmines, HALO Trust is now working to eliminate IEDs in countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

But the organization is still very present in Angola, where it continues to ensure the security of the territory.

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

Louise said: “How amazing that Diana’s legacy is still so meaningful to all of my Angolan colleagues – who were born long after her death – who are literally in this body armor on a hill in Angola right now, demining.”

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