An international humanitarian organization has completed clearing a deadly minefield in southern Sudan, in the first such operation since a civil war between northern government and southern rebel forces ended in 2005. The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) says the explosives killed and maimed many people and animals over the years at Kapoeta Town in the Eastern Equatoria region. The Sudanese army laid the landmines in the course of its long war against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
MAG’s manager in southern Sudan, Jamie Franklin, says the lives of thousands of people living at or near Kapoeta town have been “transformed for the good” because of his group’s actions.
During the north-south war, the Sudan Armed Forces planted the landmines “virtually all around” the area in South-Eastern Sudan, creating a “barrier minefield” to cut the town off from SPLA rebels, Franklin told VOA.
He explains that Kapoeta was of “great strategic importance” to both rebels and government troops, because it’s relatively close to Kenya.
“It’s a strategic location for entry and movement from Kenya into southern Sudan, and offered possible supply routes for the SPLA.”
MAG says the Kapoeta minefield covered an area of almost 300,000 square meters. It complicated access to smaller villages in the surrounding area and was a constant hazard for residents, particularly women and children. The minefield hurt pastoral groups, who were unable to safely graze their cattle, and denied use of productive land to farmers, who couldn’t plant their crops there.
But now, these activities are becoming increasingly evident at Kapoeta Town, greatly enhancing development in the area. Also, inhabitants who’d been displaced by the war and had been living in refugee camps elsewhere are now returning to take advantage of the improved security and access to land.
In addition to anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, MAG experts also cleared land of other explosive remnants of the war, including “rockets, mortars, hand grenades and everything down to small arms and ammunition,” says Franklin.
He explains that it’s taken MAG almost four years to rid Kapoeta of explosives because mine clearance is a “very specialized and time consuming activity. (Mined) land has to be cleared manually, using hand-held metal detectors. Before (the experts) can go in and use the metal detectors, the undergrowth has to be removed.”
In addition to this, MAG personnel, dressed from head to toe in protective Kevlar suits and helmets, had to investigate “each and every metallic reading” their detectors alerted them to and the area then had to be excavated by hand, in order to establish whether or not the alarm indicated the presence of explosives.
“If an area had been heavily fought over, which this area was, you have a lot of metal contamination and fragmentation,” Franklin says.
MAG experts, who are mostly former military officers with extensive experience in landmine clearance, also had to train local Sudanese to lift the explosives.
Once landmines are detected, they are either destroyed right there and then, using an explosive charge and detonated from a safe distance by an electrical signal that passes along a cable. On some occasions, an international technical field manager will defuse the mine and safely remove it. Mines collected in this way are then destroyed in bulk at what MAG calls “controlled demolition sites” far from human habitation.
Franklin acknowledges that “there’s still a lot of work to do” with regard to clearing explosives in Sudan.
“There are a lot of suspected hazardous areas that still remain to be technically surveyed and cleared, as well as some known minefields. For example, just in central and western Equatoria, there are reportedly 93 mine-affected communities, of which there’ve been 20 victims in the last two years. It’s estimated there are 1,25 million people living in impacted communities in just those two areas.”
But Franklin says MAG’s hopeful that it’ll make a “significant positive impact” on this situation in the coming years.