In South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity state, aid agencies blame suspected rebel militias for planting new landmines in their fight against the five-month old government. The state capital Bentiu is being called “a prison” by experts because all routes leading in and out of the city are thought to be mined.
A de-mining expert calls out that he is ready for the huge machine to rumble slowly forwards, shouting out when the computer screen he is watching intently shows up pieces of metal that could be a mine.
These machines, used by the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre [UNMACC], cost $10,000 an hour to run and clear up to seven kilometers of road a day.
Speaking at a noisy airfield where U.N. helicopters deliver aid to the many places now not reachable by road, U.N. Mine Operations Officer Chris Fielding said the recent re-mining in Bentiu is a huge problem.
“It’s had a major impact on the people of Unity state. It’s stopped the trading. It’s stopped normal business. It’s impeded humanitarian aid efforts. It has caused general suspicion and chaos in many parts of Unity," said Fielding. "We’re experiencing re-mining of the re-mining. We’re clearing routes and having to re-clear them, time and time again - chasing our tails [wasting our time] on some of the routes.”
There are thousands of unexploded ordnances and mines littering the country from the decades of war, which eventually led to South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in July.
Mining agencies expect it to take another six years to declare the country mine-free. But in places like Unity and other northern states where new mines are being discovered, it could push the country back even further.
Fielding said that local people often start using the roads the moment his team leaves. But it is a false sense of security, as mines often are being re-laid within hours. Last month, 20 people died when a passenger bus hit an anti-tank mine on the road to Mayom County. Locals say the bus had used the same route several times that day.
At Bentiu Hospital, theater attendant Elizabeth Tindil said that landmine incidents have increased since South Sudan gained its independence. She said the community does not dare to travel either by foot or by road, and people are plagued by sadness and fear at having loved ones maimed or killed in the explosions.
“We are not happy. We are sad all the time when we saw our people are broken. The young men, and the small children, and the women. We become sorry for them because they are our family,” she said.
One of Tindil's “broken people” is six-year-old Gatwech Riak Kornyut, whose car-print pajamas are rolled up to the knee stump where his left leg was blown off. The cheery little boy, sitting on a hospital bed, survived a mine blast in September that killed three women, including his grandmother. His family said they no longer use the Mayom road where the blast occurred.
Major General Mangar Buong, acting head of the 4th division of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army [SPLA] that fought the north for South Sudan’s independence, accuses Khartoum of funding the rebel groups to destabilize the country by planting these mines.
"I don’t know exactly the objective of these people who are fighting. That time, we are fighting a general war with the north. Then we achieve what we want - that is why we raised our flag. And we made also the procedures, the democratic procedures,” said Buong.
Shortly after the interview, the SPLA found a second anti-tank mine in as many days on the same road leading out of Bentiu. They found it only because it had been poorly buried in haste.