The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), through its partner the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), has been working to clear routes of landmines and unexploded ordnance since 2012.
On 15 December 2013, fighting broke out in Juba between different fractions of the army. Conflict and insecurity very quickly spread throughout many parts of the country and was accompanied by large-scale ethnic targeting. Since then, South Sudan has descended into an armed conflict with forces opposing the government holding large areas (mainly in three States: Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile). Hundreds of thousands have become displaced in areas potentially contaminated with the detritus of war.
In many places where fighting has occurred, unexploded items remain a hazard to civilians and humanitarian aid agencies alike. UNMAS, the United Nations agency mandated to clear explosive remnants of war, supported by ECHO, is working to remove dangerous explosive hazards, to allow civilians to return home, and for aid agencies to safely support impacted communities.
“Fighting has taken place in towns, villages and along main roads”, said Lance Malin, UNMAS Programme Manager. “This has dramatically increased unexploded ordnance contamination and will negatively impact the ability of humanitarians to safely deliver aid to the most vulnerable.”
UNMAS has mobilised teams to all major areas of fighting and secured protection of civilian sites within UN bases and humanitarian compounds. It has equally begun the clearance operations within the towns themselves to remove dangerous items left over from fighting.
Unity State in the north of the country is one of the areas worst affected with the state capital, Bentiu, changing hands numerous times during the fighting. Unexploded ordnance litters the town, and two mine strikes have been reported to the south and east of the city causing widespread mistrust of the safety of the road network, a much needed asset in the delivery of humanitarian aid. The problems stem from Bentiu throughout the state, with Mayom and Ameimnom also badly affected as many of the towns and roads now lay littered with mortars, rockets and small arms ammunition. Some areas of the state remain inaccessible due to the ongoing fighting. In response, UNMAS is clearing the main town of Bentiu of all unexploded ordnance left during the fighting, including at an ammunition dump that exploded just outside of the city.
Due to the threat of re-mining, large mine-protected vehicles are being deployed along the major roads pushing heavy rollers, similar to a steamroller but with many small wheels for ease of movement. This device allows the roads to be verified free of landmines, creating a corridor for humanitarian traffic to travel behind safely.
“With many roads contaminated by unexploded ordnance and with the potential for new mine laying, the ECHO funded route verification assets are needed more than ever,” highlighted the UNMAS Chief of Operations, Robert Thompson.
Numerous parts of the country remain inaccessible due to the ongoing fighting. UNMAS teams will mobilise into these areas as security allows in order to clear the way for humanitarian operations.