Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Landmines in South Sudan

     During Sudan’s 21 year long civil war, armies on both sides – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan Armed Forces - planted landmines thickly near major battlefields. Mines were laid on main roads, in villages, near wells and across fields. This limited people’s ability to travel from place to place and restricted their access to drinking water, grazing land for their cattle, and farmland. All aspects of life were affected: women were afraid to go out and collect firewood, children could not go to school, people could not trade with each other, hospitals and other infrastructure could not be built. After the war ended, the fear of stepping on mines blocked the return of refugees and interfered with the delivery of humanitarian aid.

     Today, 19 of the 25 states in southern Sudan are still strewn with explosive devices. The densest presence of mines in South Sudan has been found in Eastern Equatoria and Central Equatoria, the states which share borders with Kenya and Uganda. It is also believed that a high concentration of undetonated charges exists along the borders with Eritrea and Ethiopia in the east, but these areas have not yet been surveyed to determine the extent of the problem.

     In 2010, a study was conducted to determine the extent of the damage that had been done by landmines. Between the signing of the Peace Agreement that ended the civil war in 2005 and 2010, a total of 661 persons were either killed or injured by mines and other explosive devices in Sudan. 41% of them were children, and 13% were women or girls. These numbers do not include the number of people killed or maimed by landmines during the long war.

     Clearing mines from a space of ground is painstaking work. De-mining teams mark out a small area, then work their way across it inch by inch while listening for a beeping sound coming from their monitors that indicates the presence of metal parts in devices buried under the ground. They work 45 minute shifts at a time in the burning sun, wearing plastic face shields that make it impossible for them to drink water. They must work in the dry season, when the soil is so compacted they cannot activate a mine by stepping on it.

     Since 2005, efforts to clear the most densely contaminated areas have been in progress, and a whopping 19,000 landmines and 800,000 other unexploded ordnances have been found and destroyed in southern Sudan. Many kilometers of roads have been cleared, and assistance has been provided to large numbers of people who are victims of mine blasts. In addition, over four million people have received mines awareness education. Nevertheless, explosive devices still pose a significant threat to the safety of people in South Sudan: it is estimated that only 20% of the total land has been cleared of mines, 64% has yet to be cleared, and 16% still has not been assessed for the presence of such devices. 

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