WASHINGTON - Four months after fighting broke out in South Sudan's capital, Juba, the United Nations Mine Action Service says that it is still working to clear explosive hazards around the city and that the situation in the rest of the country remains critical.
UNMAS, which is tasked with coordinating the clearance of explosive remnants of war (ERW), says it has found on average about 150 new explosive hazards each month in South Sudan since conflict there erupted in December 2013.
A hazard, says UNMAS, can be a small stockpile of grenades, bullets that soldiers have left behind, or a minefield covering millions of square feet. However, landmines actually represent less than half of the known hazardous areas in South Sudan
Kelly McAulay, an UNMAS program officer in Juba, said a majority of the accidents in South Sudan involving explosive hazards are from unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, including grenades or mortars.
No evidence of new landmines
Such accidents disproportionately impact men, specifically young men and boys. Still, the number of victims of such accidents is generally low in South Sudan - approximately 50 per year.
UNMAS keeps a running total of explosive hazards in its information management system for mine action.
"Currently we have got about 750 hazards recorded in that database," said McAulay. She added there is no evidence new landmines have been planted since December 2013, when a political rivalry between South Sudan President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar triggered fighting in Juba that eventually spread across the country.
McAulay said the largest impact mines and UXOs have in South Sudan is preventing the local population from accessing services they desperately need, like water wells, schools or clinics.
"As we know, water is a very scarce resource in many parts of South Sudan and sometimes that can be a strategic target for people who are laying either mines or UXOs," said McAulay.
Ceasefire declared in July
UNMAS said it is aware of 330 hazardous areas in Central Equatoria alone. Equatoria region and Jonglei state are most heavily impacted by explosive hazards.
"Toward the south of the country and around the Equatoria region, that is where we find these really tricky minefields that are very time intensive and cost intensive to clear," said McAulay.
The warring parties in South Sudan declared a ceasefire in July, after fighting erupted near the presidential compound and spread to other parts of the capital. After the ceasefire went into effect, UNMAS received dozens of calls from worried Juba residents who thought there might be lingering unexploded ordnance.
One of those calls was from Lucy Andur, Head Mistress of Greenhill Primary School in Juba's Gudele residential area, which was caught in the middle of fighting. The next day, UNMAS deployed a team to the school, where it found explosive damage and residual hazards such as bullets.
120 schools surveyed, cleared
After working for two weeks, the team found 30 explosive hazards, including one rocket propelled grenade, which UNMAS said can be fragile and sensitive once it's been fired.
"Immediately, when [UNMAS] completed [its work] on the 18th [of August], our children reported to the school," said Andur.
Since January 2015, UNMAS has surveyed and cleared 120 schools in South Sudan, including 21 schools in Leer and Mayendit counties that were caught in cross-fire or occupied by armed actors. Explosive hazards must be removed from an estimated 300 other schools so that children can safely return.
McAulay said UNMAS is prioritizing schools, clinics and Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites. Still, due to limited resources, South Sudan's needs in the area of ERW clearance are increasingly difficult to meet.
More hazards are being found
The more UNMAS staff moves around the country clearing land and declaring it safe, she said, the more hazards they are finding.
"There is still a large part of the country which we haven't yet surveyed and haven't yet thoroughly accessed," said McAulay. She cited Jonglei state, which is largely inaccessible, especially during the rainy season, as well as Upper Nile state; and the northern border region.
"We have largely been unable to access because of political sensitivities and the ongoing conflict," she said.
UNMAS, said McAulay, prioritizes the removal of "urgent critical hazards when they are blocking children from accessing school, when they are around a health clinic, if the hazards are on an airstrip so urgent medical facilities cannot be flown in."
She added that South Sudan residents who come across an item they suspect to be a landmine or UXO should remain at a safe distance and refrain from touching or approaching the object.
Suspicious items, said McAulay, should be reported to the South Sudan Mine Action hotline (+211 92 000 1055).