Sudan: 'I Have a Mine in My Living-Room, What Should I Do?' (Sudan)
Dengershufu in Malakal, capital of the Sudanese state of Upper Nile, looks like any low-income suburb of a post-conflict Southern town, with roadside stalls selling dry fish from the nearby River Nile and children playing around in the dust. The difference on 24 April was the demining team.
"That is part of a minefield that encircles Malakal town," Fani Chikudu, site manager for MineTech, said, pointing to an area 100m from several homesteads.
"The area is heavily mined, but the people in those homes use it as a bush toilet," he added. Several people could be seen squatting in the sparse grass, others walked or rode bicycles along paths that crossed the minefield. Remnants of cattle carcasses - some blown up by the mines - lay scattered around.
"We will clean up this area, but the people need to appreciate that they are living near grave danger," Chikudu told IRIN.
Malakal County, like many areas of Upper Nile State, was a key battlefield during the war, which ended with the signing of the 2005 peace agreement, in turn triggering the return to the South of thousands of refugees outside the country and internally displaced from the North.
"Malakal town is generally heavily contaminated," Mark Argent, operations officer for the UN Mine Action Office (UNMAO), said. "I have had people come into my office to say: 'I have a mine in my living room, what should I do?'"
The mines and other ordnance were planted by the Southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan national army - the latter mainly in areas bordering Malakal and the former in other Upper Nile counties such as Baliet and Nasir.
Similar mining activities took place in various towns along the River Nile. While nobody knows how many mines were laid in Upper Nile, according to Argent, the levels of infestation across the state has proved to be generally lower than initially imagined.
Local sources in Malakal said many of returnees had ended up settling in or near mine-contaminated areas, partly through ignorance but also because they had nowhere else to build their shelters. A similar situation pertains in other towns.
"Several counties in Upper Nile are highly infested, yet they are also high return areas," said William Nyuon, senior project officer with the NGO Handicap International, which is involved in mine risk awareness and has educated almost 29,000 people in the state.
"It is mainly the women and children at risk - the women when they go to look for firewood or to dig in the gardens and the children when they play or herd livestock," he added. "The situation in Malakal is aggravated by lack of public and private toilets. People who use open fields are at particular risk."
Concerns are highest for the returnees, who have doubled the population of the town from 10,000 three years ago, according to locals. As a result, the dilapidated 1920s settlement has acquired a bustle associated with much bigger, more developed urban settings.
"Most of the returnees have not lived in Southern Sudan for years and are unaware of the dangers they may encounter when they return to their home areas or on the way to their home villages," Ahmad Masoud, mine risk education manager at Handicap International, said. "Fresh from Kakuma [a refugee camp in Kenya], it is difficult to tell what a mine looks like."
In recent weeks, the authorities in Malakal have decided to move some of the returnees to a suspected mined area in Dengershufu. Aid workers are up in arms, saying the move will mean deaths from landmines and unexploded ordnance.
"Nobody would like to see a child die because some authority decided people should settle in a particular part of Malakal," said an aid worker on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of ongoing talks to try to reverse the decision.
The state authorities deny claims of insensitivity, saying they are moving people to available land in accordance with long-term post-conflict resettlement strategies and to ensure they benefit from the relative peace that Southern Sudan now enjoys. On 24 April, a grader was at Dengershufu starting to parcel out the land.
But despite the heavy presence of mines and unexploded ordnance across Upper Nile, there have been very few human fatalities. Instead, it is livestock and other animals that have been hit.
"The locals have lived here all these years and know the dangers, so they stick to paths that are well known," Argent said. "But we are sitting on a very dangerous situation especially with the returnees."
In 2007, a returnee woman working in her garden in Nasir found unexploded ordnance and took it home to use as a cooking stone. "One day, it exploded, killing her and her husband," Nyuon said.
In March, four boys were grazing cattle on the outskirts of the town when one threw a stone at a cow. The stone fell on a mine, which blew up, killing the cow and injuring the boys. Days later, five other children found a metallic object in a rubbish dump. They took it home and tried to open it. It exploded, injuring three of them - one of whom lost her fingers.
"There have been 12 incidents in Malakal so far this year, killing animals," Bul Chol Aguer, information management officer for the South Sudan Demining Commission, told IRIN.
Along with UNMAO and other UN agencies, NGOs such as Handicap International and several contracted companies are trying to educate the public about mines as well as clear them. In March, MineTech removed 11 mines around southern Malakal while another company, TDI, cleared half a minefield in the northern zone. Three Cambodian teams were also working in Baliet, east of Malakal.
Since September, more than 2,000 mines and other unexploded ordnance have been removed from Upper Nile, according to the commission. Most of these were removed from Baliet, Duleb, Maban, Malakal, Melut and Nasir areas.
UNMAO noted some progress in its 5 April report, saying the destruction of 6,078 anti-personnel mines at a high-profile ceremony in the Southern capital of Juba on 31 March marked the destruction of known stockpiles in Sudan.
In Upper Nile, route surveys along the Jamam to Maban road, Maban to Longchok, Malakal to Pagak and Nagdier to Doleib hill had been completed; while 8 and 10 percent of the northern and southern minefields in Malakal town, respectively, had been cleared.
The recent onset of the rainy season has, however, slowed down work in Baliet, while lingering insecurity in western Upper Nile has affected work by the Armour Group. It also turned out that some of the demining equipment could not cope with Malakal's tough clay soils, especially during the rains.
"These companies and organisations are doing a good job, but they have yet to cover even a quarter of the affected area in this state," Aguer said. Unfortunately, he added, the demining commission was so constrained by lack of resources that it could not do much on its own.
In response, the deminers say patience is the key. "It is a slow, long process," Argent told IRIN. "Malakal has a 10km long, 400m wide stretch of contamination; that will take time to clean up."
Von: 28.4.2008, allafrica.com