Safe ground, safe home as UN Mine Action Service clears the way for peace-driven returnees
“South Sudan is doable. We are into the endgame now, and we need support to see this one through. It isn’t a thousand-year problem. It isn’t a hundred-year problem. It is a three to five-year problem, and then this goes away.”
“This” is the challenge posed by landmines and other unexploded ordnance littering the war-ravaged country.
Richard Boulter is the name of the British man making the bold claim. Yet we may want to take his word for it. He is, after all, Senior Programme Manager for the United Nations Mine Action Service, UNMAS, in South Sudan. He has also, in fact, dedicated more than 25 years of his life to all things going KABOOM!
Thanks to Richard and his team, most of these hazardous items explode with due notice, on command, under controlled circumstances, with a minimum of fuss. And if practice does make perfect, we should expect nothing less: since 2004 the UN mine experts have overseen the defusing, destruction, demolition or in other ways incapacitation of more than one million explosive items – in South Sudan alone.
In a matter of seconds, Richard Boulter can rattle off more impressive performance-indicating figures than you can throw a metal detector at. And he does. (See “Facts & Figures” below).
“There are a lot of numbers, and some very big ones, but at the end of the day there are only two figures that are really important: one is the existing clearance requirements and the other is the number of people who have been hurt.”
Last year, South Sudan reached the sad mark of 5,000 individuals having been killed or injured (the overwhelming majority) by explosive items since records began in 2004. The number of annual casualties has gone down significantly, thanks to the massive clearance work having been done, increased awareness of the risks and because millions of people have been displaced.
Yet Richard says that mine-related accidents may, seemingly paradoxically, soon be on the rise again. The reason? The answer, esteemed readers, is peace, and the expectation that thousands of displaced persons will return to their pre-war lives if the security situation keeps improving.
Such a much-wanted scenario leads us to “Safe Ground – Safe Home” – the global theme of this year’s International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, celebrated on 4 April since 2006.
“That is really topical as we [the humanitarian community] prepare for the return of people to their homes. It is more important than ever that we make sure that wherever they are going is safe, so that they can rebuild their lives.”
Fortunately, the risk of anyone unintentionally setting off a mine or other explosive items in South Sudan is smaller than ever. Some 1,264 square kilometres’ worth of hazardous land has been cleared over the last 15 years, with a mere 25 square kilometres remaining.
The UNMAS boss compares mine action operations with “clearing fog”, with the initial post-war estimates of dangerous areas “frankly massively inflated”. Yet, because of the devastating consequences of a mistake, anyone involved in demining must err on the side of caution by verifying any claims of danger.
“People will say that ‘I think there is a minefield and I’m not going back in [there] till someone shows me that it’s not’”, says Richard, adding a gesture suggesting that they can hardly be blamed for a spot of wariness.
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. Apart from assisting communities afflicted by explosives-related hazards, its numerous staff members – both humans as we know them and dogs - make sure that peacekeepers and aid workers alike can go about their work in the safest possible manner.
Coordinating all mine action activities may be a better organizational job description, since a lot of the manual demining work is done by specialized companies contracted and supervised by the UNMAS team. Some 50 mine action teams, composed of approximately a thousand professionals in total, are currently busy verifying that roads are safe, or clearing known items, cluster munition strikes or minefields across the country.
Approximately 90 per cent of the deminers are South Sudanese nationals. It is a male-dominated profession, partly because military experience used to be mandatory, but not in all staff categories.
Whereas women make up about ten per cent of the unsung heroes wielding metal detectors and wearing standard and required protective gear, there is pretty much gender parity in another, equally essential group of experts: community liaison officers.
“One aspect [of our work] is clearing the ground, another one is to keep people informed about what is going on, and to promote confidence so that people dare to use the land. We need to engage with the communities, hear their concerns and deal with them,” says Richard, adding that females are key to successfully getting vital messages across.
“If we want to communicate with people, we have to do it in their own language, and with persons they feel comfortable talking to. It is a proven fact that women talk better with women, sometimes because of cultural issues.”
While effective communication with affected communities is both crucial and challenging, it is the dangerous nature of demining that routinely grabs the limelight. Fortunately, decades of experience have yielded plenty of lessons learned, albeit some of them the hardest possible way.
“Play with fire and you are going to get burnt one day, that’s the reality in life. I’m sad to say that last year we had a female deminer killed, and I’m sorry to add that it was an accident that could have been avoided. Generally, it is a safe activity – if people follow the rules,” Richard says. “Certainly much, much safer than it is to work on a construction site.”
There can be no mine action, however, if there is no access to the areas believed or known to be contaminated by explosives. South Sudan’s rainy season puts a spanner in the works, “massively curtailing activities”, as do more belligerent factors, such as parties fighting for control over pieces of land.
“We have seen a peace dividend. Since the signing of the revitalized peace agreement, we have had increased access to areas which were previously denied to us,” says Richard and explains that his teams have so far had “the luxury of choice”:
“If the powers that be don’t want to see a particular area cleared of dangers there are still other places where we can go to work. And when peace comes to town – when sanity comes to town – we can go back and do our job there.”
Richard Boulter is optimistic. He speaks of South Sudan as a country with a lot of hope, where neither landmines, nor cluster munitions are currently being used, and where the remaining problem is “very well defined”.
“If current funding levels can be maintained, there is every reason to believe that all the hazards can be addressed within the three to five years. I think that would surprise people more than anything else in this country.”
That would be going out with a controlled, celebratory bang indeed.
Facts & Figures
Uncleared land area remaining: 25 square kilometres, down from 1,264 in 2004.
Districts (payams) completely cleared of known hazards: 71 per cent.
Known minefields: 1,800 have been cleared, 201 remain.
Known cluster strikes: 213 cleared, 123 remaining.
Known battle areas: 680 cleared, 37 remain.
Large-caliber explosives destroyed: 892,000
Cluster munitions incapacitated: 70,000+
Landmines removed/detonated: approximately 40,000
Ammunition incinerated: close to 4,000,000 bullets
People injured (most) or killed by explosive items: more than 5,000 since 2004. Last year: 50.
Canine capacity: Approximately 50 explosive detection dogs, eight mine detection dogs.
The production, use and sale of anti-personnel landmines is banned, as are victim-activated cluster munitions.
National hotline for reporting explosive-related hazards: 0920 001 055 or email at