Local demining company Mechem, part of the state arsenal Denel, is making a tangible contribution to a safe secession referendum in Sudan, currently Africa’s biggest country, in January. The company has cleared more than 9050km of road in the formerly war-torn country and removed 3237 explosive items including anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.
More than 30 years of civil war between the north and the south has left its mark on a country twice the size of South Africa with large numbers of mines and other explosive devices being placed or discarded by the various combating forces.
Mechem says in a media statement demining started in February 2004. It adds 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.
Following the establishment of the United Nations Mission to Sudan, mine clearance operations to make the area accessible for civilian movement and humanitarian operations have been a priority. The Mine Action Office of the United Nations recently declared as “clean” a stretch of road between the South Sudanese capital, Juba, and the town of Torit in the south-east of the country.
This work is now being intensified during the current period of voter registration. South Sudan will be the focus of global attention in January when an estimated five million voters will decide in a referendum whether to secede from the rest of the Sudan and create the world’s newest independent country.
Mechem is widely recognised as a global leader in landmine removal and battle area clearance. It is the only African company accredited for demining work with the UN and has also worked successfully in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Angola and Mozambique.
The unique geography of Southern Sudan, an area known for its swamps and rainforest, poses significant challenges for the demining efforts. In some cases existing roads were so overgrown that new ones were simply graded, says Jaap Kotze, the Mechem project manager there. One of the difficulties encountered by the Mechem teams is the absence of landmine maps to indicate unsafe areas as required by the Geneva Conventions. As a consequence Mechem had to develop its own database to determine and note the location of landmines planted in the area by the various combatants.
Another challenge was concern for the safety and security of employees in some areas in the southern region. Although the UN provided limited armed escorting services, the requests for armed protection increased to such an extent that the UN did not have enough manpower available to dispatch forces on demining tasks in the southern region/south. This necessitated the hiring of soldiers of the (South) Sudanese Liberation Army.
Mechem personnel are completely self-sufficient in the field – small tent camps provide shelter and fresh food rations are send out on a weekly or a fortnightly basis. According to Jaco Crots, operations manager of Mechem in Sudan, his teams will soon also be deployed in Jonglei province in the south-east of the country.