South Sudan: Clearing the remnants of war

9 Jul 2013

An UNMAS mine clearer in South Sudan. As the country celebrates the second anniversary of its independence, some areas are still dealing with the threat posed by land mines and other unexploded ordnance. Credit: UNMAS/Marco Grob
As South Sudan celebrates the second anniversary of its independence, parts of the country are still dealing with the threat posed by land mines and other unexploded ordnance.

For almost three decades, the small town of Rokon in South Sudan was deserted because its residents had fled the conflict between the Sudanese army and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). But since the signing of a peace agreement in 2005, more than 4,000 people have returned to the town.

This homecoming has not been easy. The land surrounding Rokon, which lies about 90 kilometres west of the capital Juba, was heavily mined during the war. At the beginning of March, four young children were playing outside, watched by their mothers who were standing a few meters away, when suddenly there was an explosion. The children had been playing with or near a mine. All four were killed, and their mothers were severely wounded.

The Development Initiative (TDI) is a for-profit organization that has been tasked with clearing cluster bombs, landmines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance from Rokon and surrounding areas. TDI is a partner of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).

“Hundreds of families have been living in fear in Rokon and other areas north of the town due to the presence of unexploded ordnance,” says Graham Rees, who is leading TDI’s efforts in Rokon. In places like Rokon, explains Rees, limited job opportunities mean that people rely heavily on the land to produce food and to generate an income. So despite the dangers, many choose to work in the fields.

Thirty-eight year old Rutha fled Rokon as a child in 1990. She returned with her three children when the peace agreement was signed, but she says it has been difficult for her family to settle back into life in the village.

“If the (mines and bombs) are removed from here, we will be able to go to the boreholes to fetch water, our children will be able to go to school and we will be able to cultivate our gardens without fear,” she said.

A top humanitarian priority

Vincent Lelei, Head of OCHA in South Sudan, says that the work of UNMAS and organizations like TDI is critical. "Clearing mines and destroying explosive remnants of war is a top priority for the humanitarian community in South Sudan.

“Mine action partners are doing a huge service to civilians and aid organizations in this country - without them, much of our work to provide life-saving supplies, protection and services would be impossible,” he says.

Since 2006, nearly 700 people have been killed or injured by mines or other remnants of war in South Sudan. But the threat affects many more. Aid organizations estimate that in 2013, the work to clear the debris of war will benefit 3 million people – a quarter of South Sudan’s population.

To reach that goal, South Sudan’s humanitarian appeal for 2013 calls on donors to provide about $30 million for mine action projects throughout the country. So far, about $25 million has been received.

“The operation is not easy,” says TDI’s Rees. “We have difficulties in accessing and surveying suspected areas during the rainy season, and this is compounded by the fact that funding for some projects has been delayed.”

UNMAS and its partners can report significant achievements. Since 2004, they have cleared mines and other explosive remnants of war from nearly 2,200 square kilometres of land and opened 22,700 kilometres of roads.

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