South Sudan digs up its buried death

Land mines are still a plague in Africa’s newest country, but change is on the horizon. Lucas Ledwaba went there to see Mechem doing its work.

Stephen Gariwich was flung 50m into the bush in a land mine explosion that killed his grandmother and eight other people.

Stephen, then eight years old, was enjoying his ride in a 35-seater minibus taxi when it hit an antitank mine in Bentiu, Unity State in SouthSudan, in October 2011.

Now 10, Stephen, a bubbly, playful child, suddenly becomes pensive when asked through an interpreter what he remembers about the incident that cost him his left leg.

He looks down at his prosthetic leg and whispers the word ‘mine’ softly, as if the mere mention of it brings back excruciating pain.

It ends there. Stephen won’t speak any further.

The expression on his face changes suddenly from innocence to that of one who has walked in the shadow of the valley of death.

In a country coming to terms with more than 40 years of war, which has killed 3?million people and displaced more than 4?million more, services such as trauma counselling are an unknown luxury.

The warring saw numerous mines strewn along major routes, inside villages, near wells and across arable land.

According to UN estimates, there are at least 110?million active mines scattered across the world, of which about 44?million are planted in Africa.

The use of land mines in SouthSudan has restricted the freedom of movement and has limited farming, cattle-grazing, intercommunity trading, and has blocked people’s access to jobs, markets and churches.

A lack of basic healthcare has meant many of SouthSudan’s war and land mine victims, like Stephen, have never received trauma counselling.

Although SouthSudan’s wars ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and independence on July 9 2011, the country is still grappling with the aftermath of the conflict.

Land mines have rendered vast tracts of land inaccessible, which hampers efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to remote areas like Stephen’s home in Bentiu.

There is, however, a bright spot in Stephen’s life.

Mechem, a South African state-owned company contracted by the UN to help with ­demining operations in the country, has taken over responsibility for his upkeep.

The company pays for his flights to Juba, where he undergoes regular check-ups on his prosthetic leg.

South African citizen Alfredo Kilino was part of a Mechem team working to remove land mines in Bentiu when Stephen’s taxi hit the antitank mine.

Like his colleagues who witnessed the horrific scene of Stephen lying in the bush, he becomes emotional when remembering what happened.

Kilino remembers seeing scattered limbs, plenty of blood and the smell of burning human flesh when they arrived at the scene of the blast.

Kilino says the taxi driver had ignored the danger signs and overtaken the armoured vehicle used by the demining team.

Moments later, they heard a loud explosion.

“There are warning signs. When we work in an area, we warn the people not to use the roads. But sometimes they don’t have a choice because in many cases that road is the only one to take them home,” says Kilino.

He says sometimes they clear the roads of land mines, only to come back the next day to find rebels have planted more during the night, particularly in the northern parts of the country where, until recently, there was still fighting.

The Mechem team was dragging the injured from the minibus when they heard someone crying in the bush.

It was Stephen.

His left leg, melted from the blazing heat of the blast, was dangling by a thread.

He was stabilised and taken to hospital.

“We managed to save Stephen. I remember nine people died on the scene.

“Our own medics got down to work to save Stephen and the other passengers. But we feel bad because we are here to save lives and to watch people die like that was bad,” he says.

But change is slowly reaching people who, for many years, have been trapped by land mines, unable to leave their villages.

Now, aid workers are slowly reaching them, thanks to the efforts of men like Manuel Bumbi Modi, a deminer with Mechem. Modi, a South Sudanese national, was part of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – the military wing of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement – for 15 years until he was forced to demobilise in 2002.

His two brothers were also in the SPLA, but died in the war.

In 2002, with signs of peace on the horizon, his parents, fearing they would lose their only surviving son, persuaded him to leave the army.

After spending many years helping to plant land mines in his people’s war for freedom, he decided to become involved in their removal.

“So many people died because of the mines. That’s why I came here,” says Modi.

He lost two of his uncles to land mine explosions in his home village of Rajab near the capital, Juba.

“I’m doing it for my people. I don’t want more people to die because so many have died in the war,” says Modi.

He says his parents and relatives are still concerned about the danger posed by his work. But he isn’t worried.

“I tell them I was in the army. I trained people how to lay mines. Now, to help my country, I’m working to remove them.”

Even men working to bring life back to normal have not been spared by the mines.

While on land mine patrol in SouthSudan’s troubled Abyei area in August 2011, four UN peacekeepers were killed and seven others injured when a land mine exploded.

“Many, many people have died. They kill cattle and people. Land mines are a very big problem here,” says Moses Chol, also a South Sudanese national and deminer with Mechem.

He too served in the SPLA and says the financial rewards of the job he is now doing do not compare to the joy of finding and successfully disarming a land mine, and healing his land.

The deminers, who work in difficult conditions, rely on a combination of technology and the unmatched ability of man’s best friend – dogs – to help rid SouthSudan of these deadly relics of war.

The dogs undergo specialised training in Pretoria and, when they are ready, they are transported to the troubled areas.

But it’s also not quite that easy.

Once in a forwarding country, the dogs undergo stringent tests by the UN.

If they fail, they are suspended, together with their handler, for one year.

The dogs are trained to pick up the scent of land mines on site and are trained to detect the presence of the mines from filters used to collect vapour from sites by specialised vehicles.

For the likes of Stephen, as the land undergoes healing, the scars of the war – which they knew nothing about and had little to do with – will continue to haunt them for the rest of their lives.

“Before the accident, he was a very active child,” says Stephen’s father, Jackobo Rite Kurunyil.

“He is still a happy child. But when he can’t run like other children, when they play, he cries. He asks me why he is not like them any more.

“He wants to know if he will ever get his leg back.”

How demining works

1. A Mine Protected Vehicle, mounted with a metal detector attached to a rubber band, scans the ground around it and these images are relayed on to a computer inside the vehicle.

When a mine is detected, the rubber band is deployed and squirts liquid on to the area to mark it for demining.

2. Another special Mine Protected Vehicle is installed with pipes that are mounted with filters.

These filters collect vapour samples from the ground in the areas believed to contain land mines. The samples are marked with GPS coordinates and sent back to the company’s lab.

3. Next come the dogs who, working with their handlers, identify samples that may contain signs of explosives.

Information about filters that test positive are relayed to the team in the field.

4. Using sophisticated metal detectors and field-trained dogs, deminers wearing protective gear carefully scour the area in search of mines.

Here, strict rules apply because one lapse of concentration, or even a single mistake, could cost you your life.

The dogs can sniff out explosives buried more than 30cm underground.

Once a dog and its handler have identified a possible mine, a team leader moves in with a metal detector to confirm the find and to establish that there are no booby traps linked to the mine.

Then a deminer, armed with a myriad tools, moves in and carefully marks the area before starting to dig, slowly, until he reaches the mine.

The find is confirmed with the team leader, who will record the GPS coordinates of the mine’s location and record the type of mine.

5. The land mines are destroyed on the scene.

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