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Landmines – The easily forgotten memory of Sudan’s civil war

Children look at a brochure on landmines and unexploded ordinances(UXOs)during a mine risk education session in Malakal, Southern Sudan
© UNICEF/2008/Giacomo
Children look at a brochure on landmines and unexploded ordinances(UXOs)during a mine risk education session in Malakal, Southern Sudan

GUMBO, Southern Sudan, May 2010 – The head of a cylinder-shaped structure, a relic of war, is jutting out of Mrs. Kuir’s backyard vegetable patch. Deminer Deng Nyok watches over as a colleague carefully digs rain-softened earth out from around the object.
 
 “It looks like an anti-tank rocket,” Nyok says. He is right. An hour later the whole weapon is exposed, broken and twisted at the bottom, covered in thick rust. Leaked chemicals in the soil formed a ring of white stuff around it. “It probably never exploded, there was maybe something wrong with the fuse,” he adds. He’s a munitions man but there’s also more than a hint of the archeologist about him.

Nyok is a team leader in the Sudan Integrated Mine Action Service (SIMAS), Southern Sudan’s only homegrown demining organization. A peace deal ended Sudan’s two decade-long war in 2005. The Sudan Armed Forces and the then rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army had both laid plenty of mines and former battle areas like this new neighborhood in Gumbo on the outskirts of the regional capital of Juba are still contaminated with war detritus.
 
It is not known how many mines and unexploded ordnances (UXO) remain in the region’s soil. But it is clear that what is there hinders agriculture and other forms of development by making valuable land areas to be feared.
 
SIMAS was formed in 1999 by senior former members of the southern rebel army that led the 22-year insurgency against the then Sudan government. Even before the peace deal was signed they began to do mine risk education in areas controlled by the southern army.
 
SIMAS, with support from the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), has since been through a strenuous vetting process to become a United Nations-approved demining organization and now has two manual clearance teams and an explosive ordnance disposal team and a mechanical team who work to prepare the ground for deminers.
 
The 52 deminers are all former rebel soldiers. Director Madut Akol himself laid plenty of mines during the war. “But half a year later you can’t remember exactly where they were and its years later now,” he said. “There are no written records.”

Demining is extremely expensive and if donor funds dry up international companies will leave, taking huge capacity with them but leaving much dangerous metal still in the ground, FSD’s programme manager Zlatko Gegic said. The local capacity that SIMAS represents is crucial, especially perhaps for a region that may become an independent country in January 2011 after a referendum for southerners on unity or secession.

Demining is an almost obsessively precise business. In Gumbo the area around the rocket has been cordoned off with white and red ribbon around red-painted bamboo poles. Neighbors are warned to stay away. The deminer, wearing protective clothing despite the heat, follows an exacting protocol of activities. A hundred meters away an ambulance Toyota land cruiser is parked, keys in ignition, facing out towards the road. Medic William Pabeek has a huge bag of equipment perfectly organized. Protocol, preparation and precision is religion. SIMAS has yet to have an accident.

But while demining is more dramatic work than its duller sister Mine Risk Education (MRE), both are crucial, Akol said. “There is a need for us to come back to MRE,” he explained. “We cannot clear the whole region so MRE can work well as people are coming in hundreds to places that have mines.” Most of the demining that has taken place has been on the region’s roads. Humanitarian demining in and around communities has taken a back seat.
 
Gumbo is a classic example. Kuir and her now-numerous neighbors looking for new opportunities in and around the capital are living on an old battle field as the rocket and other relics of war testify. “It’s from 1991, or 92, when the (former rebel) SPLA was trying to capture Juba,” Nyok said. “It’s the kind of thing children play with, hitting it with a stick.”

Gumbo’s residents are exactly the kind of community SIMAS’ MRE team looks for. The team has already reached more than 6,000 people – they try to keep their 40-minute instruction sessions to fewer than 100 attendees – with information about how to protect themselves from mines and UXOs.
 
William Nyuon is the leader of the four-person MRE team. They travel all over Central Equatoria State calling together groups of people who they then educate on the risks of mines. “We do it in community centers, schools, water points, football fields, everywhere,” Nyuon said.
 
There’s a long way to go and many people still to reach. There are many stories like the one Nyuon tells about the woman in Jonglei State who used a UXO to balance her cooking pot on a fire. It exploded and three people lost their lives and she lost a leg.
 
“People don’t always know what a UXO is or that it is dangerous. But after MRE training they know. I’ve seen it is making a difference to the number of people hurt,” Nyuon said.
 
It is often also when MRE trainers are in an area that information gets out about UXO or other items. “One of the things we always ask people is if they know about anything like this in their place,” Nyuon said. “It’s often the children who have the best knowledge.”

 

 
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