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Soldiers to be Trained at East Africa's First De-Mining Center

The International Mine Action Training Center, a joint British-Kenyan project that is set to become a center of excellence for mine action training in sub-Saharan Africa, opened its doors just outside of Nairobi in mid-February.

Tightly gripping the handle of the metal detector, Thomas Bebora sweeps the ground in front of him, his eyes riveted to the task.

When he hears the machine's high-pitched whine, the Kenyan soldier drops to his knees. He marks a spot on the ground 150 millimeters back from where he heard the sound. Slowly, painstakingly, gently, he loosens the ground with a trowel to see what set off the signal.

The soldier knows one false move and the mistake could literally blow up in his face. But he also knows there are proven methods of safely unearthing and destroying landmines, methods being taught at East Africa's first de-mining center.

The 75-staff members at the International Mine Action Training Center, aim to train 350 Kenyan and Sudanese soldiers to be humanitarian de-miners in southern Sudan and Eritrea, during the center's first year .

The ground where the Kenyan soldier is demonstrating the use of the metal detector is where students learn how to recognize and safely destroy landmines and other unexploded ordinance, such as rockets and missiles.

The instructor, Sergeant Jim Vernon of the British army, says humanitarian de-mining involves working hand-in-hand with affected communities in this process.

"You have a thing called an impact survey, where people will go out and interview the local people who live in that area, because a lot of these people will know where the mines are," he said. "Also, then you take into account things like injuries, how many people have been injured, and what they need the land for. And then it gets prioritized as to which areas need to be cleared first."

Sergeant Vernon says his students are also being prepared to teach local people how to recognize landmines and other unexploded ordinance and what to do once they see these.

De-mining is a meticulous process. Clad in vests that stretch from the shoulders to the groin, and wearing a helmet with a clear plastic shield that covers the face, de-miners enter an area with a wide array of tools and emergency medical supplies in case things go wrong.

Instructor Peter Wachira, a Corporal in the Kenyan army, who has de-mined in Eritrea as part of the United Nations mission there, describes his work.

"Now when I am looking for a mine, I can use two methods. I can use a [metal] detector and as well as I can prod with a prodder," explained Mr. Wachire. "A prodder is a metallic instrument that I use to detect a mine. Drive it gently into the ground. Once there is a mine, I'll feel a mine with that prodder. I will inform my section commander that I have come across a mine, and he will come and identify the mine and then will start excavating towards the mine."

Corporal Wachira says once he finds a mine, he takes care not to touch it. He plants explosives next to the mine, moves 100 meters away, and the mine is then destroyed.

The International Mine Action Training Center, located just outside Kenya's capital, Nairobi, was officially launched February 17. One hundred Kenyan soldiers have started the five to seven-week training program and are scheduled to head out to Sudan in April for one year of de-mining.

Kenyan soldier Edwin Kiprono is one such student. He told VOA he volunteered for the training and is looking forward to working in Sudan's Nuba Mountains.

"We have been seeing the effects of the mines on the local people - the children, the women, those innocent people in the society. Now, you really feel. You can see someone without a limb, you can see someone without a hand, you really feel, and you say, well, if I am able, I can do something about it," he said.

Later in the year, soldiers from the Sudanese army and the Sudan Peoples'Liberation Movement, the former main rebel group of the south, will also undergo de-mining training at the center.

The Sudanese government and the southern rebel group have just signed a peace agreement to end 21 years of civil war. Eritrea and Ethiopia are maintaining a truce in their earlier fighting over their shared border, and Britain this year is heading the G-8 group of industrialized countries and the European Union, and plans to put Africa on the top of the agenda.

Britain's Minister of Armed Forces Adam Ingram says the center is in response to these and other developments.

"Turning to the specific area of anti-personnel landmines, this issue was brought back to the fore at the Nairobi summit last November," said Mr. Ingram. "This was underscored by the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan, where the threat of landmines and other explosive remnants of war in certain areas remain high. That said, to talk and to agree is one thing, but this center is a tangible demonstration of our combined commitment to actually do something about these problems."

No one knows how many land mines are in Sudan, Eritrea, or anywhere else, or the exact location of those mines. The Kenya Coalition Against Landmines estimates that 110 million landmines could be planted in African soil.

De-mining instructor, Sergeant Vernon, thinks there could be a few million mines in Sudan, alone.

According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, there are mine fields and areas with abandoned ammunition in 23 African countries. The organization estimates that more than half of the 15,000 to 20,000 people who die from landmines each year are in Africa.