Devastating explosion at South Sudanese ammunitions depot leaves civilian casualties; UNMAS clearance teams respond swiftly

explosion ammunitions depot south sudan SSPDF arms small ordnance explosion blast danger injuries risk UNMAS UNMISS unmiss peacekeeping casualty

A massive explosion at an SSPDF ammunition depot in Rubkona has led to civilian injuries as well as propelled unexploded ordnance and dangerous debris across a nearly two-kilometer radius. UNMAS demining teams are surveying and clearing the area, but it's a long road ahead to make the ground safe for communities once again. Photo by Peter Bateman/UNMISS

9 Jun 2023

Devastating explosion at South Sudanese ammunitions depot leaves civilian casualties; UNMAS clearance teams respond swiftly

Peter Bateman

BENTIU – Deafening explosions resounded around Rubkona town last night as a fire at the Division Four headquarters of the South Sudan People's Defense Force (SSPDF) ammunitions depot caused dangerous ordnance to rip into homes and barracks.

According to initial reports coming in, civilians living within a two-kilometer radius bore the brunt of this catastrophe. 

As SSPDF investigators work to identify what ignited the conflagration, concerns have shifted to immediate safety threats posed by unexploded ordnance and dangerous debris that now litters not just the immediate blast site but also many areas heavily populated by civilians.

Major General William Manyang Mayak, the SSPDF infantry Division Four Commander recounted the details of the tragic incident.

"A fire broke out in the division headquarters, and the root cause remains unknown. We are actively investigating," he shared.

"Regrettably, the majority injured are civilians who were in close proximity to the barracks at the time. Amongst them is a female soldier who tragically lost her leg."

The exact number of affected civilians is yet to be determined, said the Major General.

In this challenging scenario, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has offered emergency medical aid. "UNMISS peacekeepers donated blood, a noble act that helped save lives, particularly of those suffering severe wounds," stated the Commander.

Critically, demining teams from the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), are working around the clock, responding to the incident.

This is easier said than done, reveals Fran O’ Grady, Chief of UNMAS.

“The explosion was massive and, consequently, so is the radius that our demining teams have to focus on, survey, and clear,” he states. “With extreme flooding in Unity state during the past couple of years, our fear is that much of the unexploded ordnance propelled into the air by the fire has been submerged under water,” he adds.

“Climate shocks have created a new threat landscape that our deminers must find ways to navigate successfully to ensure that the ripple effects of this incident do not continue to cause harm to civilians in years to come,” he adds.

Given the seriousness of the situation, local officials have called for communities to stay vigilant and calm, assuring them that the government is prioritizing a speedy, safe resolution.

But for the committed UNMAS demining teams, the road towards making the ground safe for communities once again so that they can live without fear is a long and arduous one.

“Our team is working with relevant authorities and communities, amping up our risk education and following up on calls from any individual who has reported suspicious objects lying around,” explains Mr. O’Grady.

“We will continue making every effort to clear all hazards and ensure that the people of Rubkona remain safe.”

Military observers serving with the UN Peacekeeping mission are on the ground, supporting UNMAS.