Dual threats addressed as UN Mine Action Service visits sites in Eastern and Central Equatoria
While the jury is still out on the endurance of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the days of explosive hazards posing a threat to the people of South Sudan are literally numbered: by July 2026 they shall all be gone.
Residents in Amee in Eastern Equatoria State were still, however, facing both issues when the UN Mine Action Service, UNMAS, recently paid them a visit.
“It’s great news that they are removing all land mines and other explosives from our land. By doing this, they are definitely saving lives,” said Avuva Susan while breastfeeding her baby.
“But we are still afraid of going into these surrounding forests, because the whole area has not been cleared yet,” she added.
At the time of the field visit, in December, Ms. Susan was right: about half of the site, which used to be an important base for armed forces, had not been cleared. Some 10,600 square metres, roughly one and a half football pitch, remained potentially contaminated by explosive remnants of war. The good news is that the entire Amee risk area has since then been declared safe for its 150 residents to use as they please.
Yet, offering sessions of explosive ordnance risk education is never a bad idea. Since July 2011, more than 660,000 residents of Eastern Equatoria State, one of the most affected regions in South Sudan, have been given such potentially life-saving trainings. In total, 5.3 million South Sudanese people have been taught how to recognize and report explosive hazards.
And for good reasons, because the risks are real: in 2018, South Sudan passed the sad mark of 5,000 individuals having been killed or injured (the overwhelming majority) by explosive items since records began in 2004.
Fortunately, as the remaining area of potentially contaminated land is steadily decreasing (see Facts & Figures below), so is the casualty toll. Last year, 57 persons were injured or killed. That number can be compared with 173 in 2011.
The message of explosive remnants representing a lethal threat is hammered home as the demining team proceeds by safely demolishing two cluster munitions in a controlled explosion. Before kabooming them, the evil twins had been “found” during a demonstration of manual clearing: two persons sweeping a funny-sounding metal detector just above the soil.
“Just two weeks ago, one single device like this killed four people and injured another eleven in Yirol, Lakes State, when some children made a fire on top of an invisible piece of cluster munition. We have already found ten of these here at this site, with half the area left to clear,” said Richard Boulter, the UNMAS Senior Programme Manager.
With the threat now removed, Amee and other cleared sites are ready to welcome the return of citizens who have been internally displaced or who sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
It also means that cleared areas can be reached by humanitarian response and development initiatives. In this way, the UN Mine Action Service is an integral part of both the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and the humanitarian cluster, comprised of both UN agencies and other international and national non-governmental organizations. In short, their work enables peacekeepers and aid workers alike to go about their business in the safest way possible.
While demining remains a male-dominated undertaking, partly because military experience used to be mandatory, gender parity prevails in at least one essential group of hired experts: community liaison officers.
“One aspect of our work is clearing the ground, another is to keep people informed about what is going on, to hear and deal with their concerns and to promote the confidence needed for locals to dare use the land,” Richard Boulter explains, adding that “it is a proven fact that women talk better with women, sometimes because of cultural issues.”
In Amee, that woman is Juan Christine Fabio. She knows a thing or two about the concerns of people living in areas known to be littered with remnants of war.
“Their most common questions are what a mine looks like, and what they should do if they find one. We always say: stay away from them. If you find yourself in a minefield, stay still and call for help,” she says.
These are the kind of emergency response situations referred to by William Maina, a Kenyan demining veteran currently working for UNMAS as a Compliance and Coordination Officer. Demining itself, he says, “is not so complicated.”
“But extricating someone safely can be very difficult. If a deminer or somebody else has been injured, it can take a lot of time to bring the person to a hospital, sometimes too long,” he explains gravely.
Alfred Okumu, sub-chief of Amee, is pleased with the work of the deminers in the former battle field, financed by the government of Japan as part of a project snappily named “Enabling the safe return, humanitarian operations and strengthening the institutional capacity of the National Mine Action Authority in South Sudan.”
“It means that we can use and work our land productively and without fear, and that is priceless,” he said, adding that the awareness-raising messaging on COVID-19 prevention provided by the visiting delegation also was much appreciated and needed.
The field trip organized and led by the UN Mine Action Service also took in a few sites in Central Equatoria State, including the recently cleared villages of Tingli and Lokiliri.
Come July 2026 and no more removal of explosive remnants of war shall be needed, at least if an unanimously accepted plan submitted by the government of South Sudan in November last year is successfully implemented.
“South Sudan is definitely doable. We are into the endgame now, and with peace and current funding levels maintained, there is every reason to believe that this problem will be history within this timeframe,” Richard Boulter asserts.
Facts & Figures as of 31 December 2020
Remaining land area with known or suspected hazards: 18.8 square kilometres (some 2,554 football pitches), down from 408 in 2011.
Districts (payams) completely cleared of known hazards: 81.3 per cent.
Known minefields: 1,896 have been cleared, 188 remaining.
Known cluster munition strikes: 284 cleared, 128 remaining.
Known confrontation areas: 748 cleared, 35 remaining.
Landmines removed/detonated: 39,745.
Cluster munitions incapacitated: 74,320
Other unexploded ordnances destroyed: approximately 949,077
Ammunition incinerated: more than 5.4 million bullets
Explosive ordnance risk education: delivered to 5.3 million people, including internally displaced persons, returnees and host communities.
Japan’s contribution since 2011: Funds to clear more than 3.2 million square metres = approximately 458 football pitches with the potential to produce an estimated 350 tonnes of maize per year.
National hotline for reporting explosive-related hazards: 0920 001 055 (Email: email@example.com)