On International Mine Awareness Day, UNHCR concerned over dangers facing returning refugees to south Sudan
GENEVA, Apr 3 (UNHCR) - UNHCR is supporting the first International Day for Mine Awareness on 4 April 2006 fully aware that refugees often face the danger of returning to countries where mines have been sewn during conflict. Eighty-four countries in the world are affected by landmines and unexploded ordnance. South Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are now anxiously waiting to go home, is one of them.
A comprehensive peace agreement signed in January 2005 ended 21 years of civil war in south Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are now preparing to go home after years in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. One of the major dangers they will face in rebuilding their lives is trying to live safely in a country sown with thousands of mines and unexploded ordnance, as it will take many years to clear these devastating devices.
UNHCR is working with other partners in establishing a programme to address this issue. "UNHCR is trying to get more involved in mine action as this is key to our programme on return to south Sudan," says Harry Leefe, Mine Action Focal Point for UNHCR. "We want to be more involved - especially in the Eastern Equatoria and Blue Nile regions. This will support our efforts to facilitate the return of Sudanese refugees from Kenya and from Ethiopia."
For UNHCR, addressing the problem of the mines is a key factor in ensuring the safe and sustainable return of refugees as well as those internally displaced by the war. The problem is that south Sudan is a huge area to survey, and limited financial resources have been allocated to mine activities.
"South Sudan is in a way 'competing' with places such as Afghanistan and Cambodia where the mine problem is also huge. So donors do not necessarily see mine activities as a priority in south Sudan, but they are crucial," said Leefe.
The pressing need for mind clearance is illustrated in the experience of medical staff at Malakal hospital in the Upper Nile region. Nyami, a 10-year-old girl, was blasted by a landmine two months ago while playing. She took a piece of what looked like a stone in the ground and managed to remove it. When she stood on it, it just blew her left foot away. "She was brought immediately to the hospital, she was in complete shock," says Mamoun Omer, the surgeon who operated on her at Malakal hospital. "She had injuries to her lower limb, in fact it was almost dead. We took her to the operating theatre and immediately performed an amputation on her left leg."
Such injuries are very common says Dr Omer, because children play with anything they find. "In the past two weeks, we have received three wounded children with such injuries," he said.
UNHCR has been working with different mine clearance organisations such as Mine Action Group (MAG), the UNMAS (United Nations Mine Actions Service), the UN Inter-Agency Coordination Group for Mine Action, and is in the process of contracting various partners to increase its participation on the ground in demining activities, including the Fondation Suisse de Déminage (FSD) and the Danish Demining Group (DDG).
The UN refugee agency has been trying to educate refugees in camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic and Uganda about the dangers they need to be aware of when they return home.
But one of the problems all demining operations face is the length of time it takes to clear land. "It takes a long long time to survey any suspicious area," says Frode Steinsvik, Project Manager for Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) which operates in south Sudan. He says it took them six months last year to clear a 120,000-square metre area of land where they found eight anti-personnel mines.
Added to this, the conflict in South Sudan, which lasted 21 years, was extremely sporadic. "Nobody knows exactly where the mines are, it is completely random," he says.