Making South Sudan a safer place to live (March 2013)
In the remote and sun parched semi-arid wilderness of eastern South Sudan, people from the Toposa tribe live in simple mud and grass huts. Their lives are harsh, reliant on their livestock and at the mercy of the elements.
In addition to this, the land they live on is contaminated with landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO), deadly remnants from the civil war that ravaged the area for over 20 years. Following a recent accident involving four young boys who were injured while playing with a mortar that exploded, there was an urgent need for Risk Education (RE) and clearance of UXO. The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in South Sudan tasked DCA to respond.
Getting the highly trained Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and RE teams to Kapoeta in Eastern Equatoria State was no easy task – a grueling two day drive in convoy on dusty bumpy roads, with military escorts for protection against armed bandits. Ensuring the local people understood what DCA planned to do in the area was also a challenge.
Kapoeta has natural resources which the local community is keen to protect, therefore they are keen to ensure anyone visiting the area is there to contribute to the communities rather than take away.
The DCA RE whom team is skilled in community liaison, was able to explain the mandate of DCA in just a few days and soon they had all the support of the local authorities and town elders.
The DCA EOD and RE teams always work closely together and help each other throughout their operations. Their specific skills are interdependent and ensure that all activities are community-focused and impact-driven. Once their presence had been explained and accepted, the RE team began organizing awareness training sessions in schools, communities, and with local focal groups.
During these sessions, they asked the local people if they had seen any dangerous items in the vicinity. At one such session, 10 year old Logai reported having seen a mortar under a termite hill by his friend’s house.
The family was digging up the termite hill to use the sandy soil for the walls and floors of their houses, when they came across a buried mortar and some other smaller items. Juma, the team leader of the RE team, went to have a look at the items and confirmed they were indeed UXO. He contacted the EOD team.
After inspection, Hassan, the EOD technical advisor, announced that the items were too sensitive to be moved – they would have to be destroyed in situ. This meant that the six neighbouring houses and paths would have to be evacuated and the area made secure. The RE team began moving from house to house, explaining what was happening and why the people had to move.
The house closest to the termite hill was less than 30m away. Twelve year old Angeline looked over the top of the grass wall of her family’s compound to see what was going on. Her mother had walked to the market to buy some dried beans and maize flour, leaving Angeline in charge of her four younger siblings.
“We saw cars arriving and unknown people walking around outside our compound and we were a little bit scared,” explained Angeline. “Then some of them came and told us who they were. They smiled a lot and seemed friendly. They said they had come to destroy the dangerous item that was found in the termite hill. We were happy. Since the item had been found, we were too afraid to play outside our house.”
The RE team evacuated all the residents, including Angeline and her young brothers and sisters, to a safe distance while the EOD team prepared for the demolition. They were careful to keep families together and not to separate any children. They also gave special attention to old people who needed more time to prepare and some assistance with moving.
“We sang songs and played with the children, so that they would not be scared,” said team leader Juma. They explained to all the evacuees that there would be a loud bang soon, as the technical team destroyed the dangerous items. There was nothing to fear.
Once the area was secure, that means free from people and animals, the EOD technical advisor, Hassan, made the final preparations for the demolition. He built a wall of sand bags around the UXO, to ensure no shrapnel or rocks would fly and damage the nearby houses and that the environmental impact of the controlled explosion would be minimal.
Once all was prepared, the sentries had confirmed that the area was clear, and Hassan had also retreated to the safe firing point, a hush fell over the area. Then: “Fire, fire, fire, fire” shouted Hassan, followed by an almighty Bang! Carefully, Hassan approached the area to check all items had been destroyed, and the area was once again safe. The local residents cheered.
Both the DCA RE and EOD team will stay in the Kapoeta area until the items the community has reported have been cleared. Many items are buried in the ground, like the items found under the termite hill, and may not be discovered for a long time.
So the small town of Kapoeta, like the rest of South Sudan, may not be cleared of dangerous remnants of war for many years. In the meantime, the DCA teams will continue carrying out their life-saving work.