Destroying left-over threats
Sargeant Chol Mayomdit and his team jumped into two all-terrain vehicles parked on a dusty field near Juba and headed for the local village to look for a bomb.
When they arrived, the village chief told the four South Sudan National Police Service (SSNPS) officers he thought he had seen a mortar bomb on the river bank, which had shifted after heavy rain in the night.
“I didn’t touch it because of those kids killed in the explosion last week,” the chief said, referring to the detonation of an unexploded ordinance (UXO) in a nearby town. “I told everyone to stay away.”
Sgt Chol moved cautiously toward the spherical UXO -- about the size of a football -- and pulled out his binoculars for a closer look. Finally judging it safe to move, he picked the munition up and carried it away for disposal.
“Some are safe to move by trained people, but others must be blown up in situ,” explained Captain Jamie Malynn, an Irish military instructor directing this Conventional Munitions Disposal (CMD) exercise at Rajaf SSNPS Training Centre.
The munitions exercise or “task” was one of many in the eight-week CMD course for 20 SSNPS officers from four South Sudanese states – Warrap, Western Bahr El-Ghazal, Northern Bahr El-Ghazal and Lakes.
Led by the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and supported by the Irish Defence Forces, UNMISS, UN Police and National Mine Action Authority, it is the first project of its kind in South Sudan.
With a history of conflict spanning almost 40 years, the country is riddled with UXOs, which impede daily activities and hinder development.
“People are not cultivating their land because of UXOs,” said Sgt. Chol. “UXOs kill cattle so they are afraid to graze in some places. Some people who died last week were just digging to build a house. Now people don’t want to dig.”
Previously, Sgt. Chol and his colleagues had little knowledge of UXOs or different types of munitions. “Before I would have picked one up and maybe it would have exploded,” the SSNPS sergeant said. “Now I know.”
“Expertise doesn’t exist here,” said Major Fran O’Grady, who is leading the four-man Irish training team. “We are here to lay the skills foundation, first by training a number of teams, then mentoring them in the field and ultimately training instructors.”
He noted that behaviour was a vital part of the training, as many UXOs are found in villages or around schools and farms.
“How they conduct themselves is almost as important at times as the task they do. They have to ask the right questions and make the right interpretation for a risk assessment,” the major said.
The team’s first job is to create awareness of UXOs, explained Sgt. Chol. “We go and meet with the local police and then the chief of the village and create awareness of the danger of UXOs. They then report to us about any UXOs they have found.”
When that happens, the CMD team travels to the location, sketches the area and checks to see if anyone living there needs to be evacuated, he said. “If the area is clear, we render safety procedures – control the area and cordon if off.”
The first pilot CMD course graduated 20 officers earlier in November, including Sgt Chol, who was presented with a special award as top student of the group.
The newly trained teams will be sent to their four states in the new year, where they will be mentored by the Irish team, UNMAS and UNPOL. A second batch of officers will begin training in January 2014.
The project aims to set up a nation-wide SSNPS CMD capability by training teams for deployment to each of the 78 counties in South Sudan’s 10 states.
Sgt. Chol will be stationed in Wau, the capital of Western Bahr El-Ghazal, but he will be travelling all over the state to hunt UXOs.
Making the SSNPS munitions-ready would “take a number of years”, Commander O’Grady said. Teams would soon be in the field and training of trainers would begin late next year, but the complete handover would take longer.
“Even when the ownership has passed over, it will be maybe five years before the SSNPS will have all the skills to train and task their own people,” he said.
But for graduates like Sgt. Chol, the project is already a success. “I feel comfortable around explosives,” he said. “I am different from other people now. I am not afraid.”