The re-sowing of landmines in areas cleared by deminers is merging as a problem in the borderlands between north and south Sudan.
“The border area has become very dangerous. Rebels and breakaway groups are laying landmines around their camps and then moving on, leaving a minefield for local residents,” Mechem CE Ashley Williams says. His company, part of state arsenal Denel, is Africa’s only United Nations-(UN) accredited landmine clearance company, and has been active in southern Sudan for some years.
“No sooner have we cleared an area for the UN then we are re-deployed to another trouble spot. We keep returning to areas we have already released because new mines are being laid daily,” added Williams. “This situation is unusual for us as we are generally called in to remove explosive remnants of war when the conflict is over.”
South Sudan will formally secede from Sudan next month, with independence set for July 9. South Sudanese independence follows a referendum in January that flowed from a January 2005 peace agreement, ending a civil war that re-started in 1983, largely a continuation of a previous conflict that lasted from 1955 to 1972. Roughly two million people died between 1983 and 2005 as a result of war, famine and disease caused by the conflict and four million were displaced.
By November last year, the company had cleared more than 9050km of road and removed 3237 explosive items including anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Mechem said in a media statement last year demining started in February 2004. It added it began with only two teams consisting of 17 staff and four dogs. Operations increased as the peace process progressed and cross-border landmine clearance between the northern and southern regions of Sudan were allowed. The initial group gradually expanded to six groups numbering a total of 170 people and twelve dog teams.
Williams notes that clearing landmines is life-changing. “The presence of landmines in any area effectively isolates communities who are afraid to move. We came across a village in Sudan where residents hadn’t used their main road for 15 years.” The mere threat of mines can lay fallow vast tracts of land and cause serious displacement. “A village of 10 000 people were moved to another area for three years – we found only five landmines in the minefield. This is the power of landmines,” says Williams.