New focus on the scourge of land mines

March 14, 2002 (IRIN)

The European Commission (EC) recently announced its decision to support a major programme, endorsed by both the government of Sudan and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), to tackle the serious problem of land mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the country.

The programme "will involve cross-line activities, and constitute a very strong message for peace" by allowing civil society to build up an initiative to deal with land mines even as the country is still at war, according to the EC.

The government has signed, but not yet ratified, the Ottawa Treaty against land-mine use, while the SPLM/A signed an agreement on a total ban on antipersonnel land mines throughout territories under its control in October 2001.

The main objective of the new mine action programme is "to begin the process which will facilitate a wide-scale national mine action programme in peace time", according to the EC. The initiative would involve applying internationally recognised standards, and developing cross-line contacts and cooperation, it stated last week. It has committed 1.5 million euros (some US $1.31 million) for an initial one-year effort, to run to February 2003.

The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has also become involved recently in assessing how it could assist in Sudan, according to humanitarian sources. The unit had been very wary of trying to survey or lift mines in a war situation (especially when minefields have been laid a long time ago, and have not been mapped or had their boundaries delineated), but the apparent cross-line commitment to tackling land mines had encouraged it to become involved, they said.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which has been engaged in land-mine awareness activities in Sudan, said on Thursday it welcomed the EC-supported initiative, as it had seen the terrible toll of land mines among women and children.

"We're very glad to see the situation being addressed in a serious manner," Martin Dawes, the UNICEF Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) spokesman, told IRIN on Thursday. "We know of the injuries and deaths that occur from land mines and discarded ordnance, and we welcome this attention; something has to be done about this problem."

Just recently, Dawes said, he had heard of a teacher and two pupils being seriously injured in three separate incidents while tending a school garden in Maridi, Western Equatoria. It was high time that a serious initiative was undertaken to survey, map and hopefully remove mines - in addition to the mine-awareness activities that were already taking place, he added.

Felipe Donoso, head of office for Sudan at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Nairobi, also welcomed the initiative, saying that beyond agreement on no longer laying antipersonnel mines, it was also necessary to remove those already in use, because they violated international humanitarian law and the laws of war. "Most victims of antipersonnel mines in Sudan, as elsewhere, are civilians and not actors in the war," Donoso told IRIN.

The new cross-lines mining programme being developed was only possible because "there is a common ground between major parties to the conflict - the government and SPLM/A - in recognising the humanitarian and economic damage being inflicted by land mines," according to the EC.

National nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) from both government-controlled and non-government- controlled parts of the country are set to implement the programme, with the support of Landmine Action, a British-based consortium of NGOs, and Oxfam GB.

Some 32 mainly Sudanese groups participating in the programme are grouped under the Sudan Campaign to Ban Landmines (SCBL), which operates in northern Sudan, and Operation Save Innocent Lives (OSIL) in southern Sudan.

The programme intends to build a strong information network extending to all current and past war-affected areas, said EC delegate Xavier Marchal in a press conference in Khartoum, adding that this would "act as a conduit to report all incidents where people or animals fall victim to land mines".

Incoming information about land-mine incidents will be fed through local focal points and field officers to two main operational centres, one in Khartoum and one in the SPLM/A controlled south, according to the EC. The programme is also intended to respond to the immediate needs of land-mine victims and to mount limited survey, marking and clearance operations when the opportunity arises.

Activities are initially to be concentrated in the Nuba Mountains region of Southern Kordofan, south-central Sudan, where a local cease-fire between the government and SPLM/A Nuba is in effect, according to sources in Khartoum.

Mines have been called "the perfect soldiers": they are cheap to produce and do not need maintenance; once they have been placed, they stand guard without needing sleep, food, water or drugs; and they never miss - however unintended their target.

Land mines, or at least antipersonnel mines, would be better depicted as terrorists, not soldiers, according to Donoso of the ICRC. "They are terrorists because they don't make a distinction between enemy fighters and civilians - women, kids, old women - in clear violation of international law," he told IRIN on Thursday.

Africa suffers from an epidemic of land mines and UXO, and is the most heavily mined continent in the world, with at least 40 million land mines, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It describes Sudan as being among the most "severely infested countries" in a continent where land mines kill, injure and disable over 12,000 people per year.

There are between 500,000 and two million land mines in Sudan, laid by both the government and rebel groups, according to considered estimates. Mining continues to occur in the south of the country - already particularly affected, especially around towns - according to the Red Cross Federation.

The US-based Human Rights Watch reported in its World Report 2001, that the Ottawa Treaty, signed by Sudan in 1997, remained unratified, and that the government had not destroyed antipersonnel land mines as required. It also continued to use land mines in some areas, such as the eastern front, the report added.

The government denied, at an international conference on land mines in Nicaragua in September 2001, that it had used mines recently, but spoke of their continued use by the SPLA. Khartoum gave as its reason for the delay in ratifying the Ottawa treaty the ongoing war in Sudan, but said, despite limited resources, it had already started implementing the agreement. []

During an interview with IRIN in January, Muhammad Dirdiery, charge d'affaires at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi, also dismissed claims that the Khartoum government had been laying land mines in southern Sudan. "If they are accusing us of carrying out offensives against innocent civilians, it is rubbish to even speak about land mines. Land mines are defensive weapons, and are not used when carrying out an offensive," he said.

The government of Sudan, as cited by the Red Cross Federation, estimates that mine accidents have resulted in more than 700,000 amputees and an equal number of deaths. Most parts of Sudan, particularly in the south, lack medical services and rehabilitation centres, and have limited equipment and qualified personnel to conduct basic life-saving procedures.

Mines are typically deployed in fields, near villages and towns, on roads, around wells, schools and health clinics, so that - besides killing and disabling individuals - they damage communities by preventing land cultivation, blocking passage to safe drinking water, limiting humanitarian access, closing roads and isolating villages and towns.

The new mine-action network in Sudan would seek to access information related to arable and pastoral land which is unused due to the actual or presumed presence of minefields, the EC stated last week.

Pastoralist communities are most affected by the scourge of land mines in Sudan, primarily because of the migratory range of nomadic pastoralists across the major areas of conflict - and thus the main minefields - in search of water and grazing, according to humanitarian sources.

Casualties from mines and UXO currently occur at a rate of at least 10 per day in southern Sudan, peaking well over that figure whenever the government conducts aerial bombing runs on civilian population centres, according to one NGO. That figure would greatly increase in proportion to the number of returning refugees and internally displaced people returning to mine-infested areas, it added.

The pastoralist economy and culture is central to Sudanese society and, "one may realistically assume, great harm done to pastoralism is also great harm done to Sudan," it said. In that light, the new mine action should include pastoralist groups and emphasise the need to report all mine incidents, including those involving animals, it added.

The current Sudan initiative was notable for its depoliticisation of the issue of land mines, in that it is cross-line - endorsed by both major parties to the conflict and does not intend to embarrass the forces responsible for using them, but rather to emphasise the indiscrimate nature of the damage they cause, according to sources familiar with the scale of the problem. Even after a sustained peace, it will take many years to clear Sudan of land mines, they told IRIN.

However, efforts such as the current initiative could speed up that process by identifying now in advance of the lives being lost and destroyed, the livestock killed, the massive areas closed to economic uses - as well as the needs and priorities for mine action.

There was an urgent need to extend the availability of medical and prosthetic facilities in rural areas, because it was in these places that most injuries and deaths occurred, largely unheralded, the sources said.

Beyond that, all parties to the conflict (including militias and locally recruited forces) must be persuaded to stop the use of land mines, and especially antipersonnel mines. "The continued deployment of these weapons is an abuse, and an act of long-term destruction which must be considered a crime against the people of Sudan," they added.