Lack of peace accord hampers demining in Casamance

In forests near Ziguinchor fruit is left to rot on trees in villages that have been aandoned because of landmines.
(Anna Jefferys/IRIN)

After years of delays linked to instability in strife-torn Casamance, the government finally launched a landmine clearance programme in the region in February 2008, but lack of adherence to the 2004 peace accord is hampering progress.

The Senegalese government and members of the Casamance-based rebel group Mouvement des Forces Democratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) signed a peace accord in December 2004, but violent incidents continue despite it, leaving the region stuck in limbo with no peace and no war.

After a period of relative calm in 2007 when just one person was killed by a landmine, 2008 has seen three landmine-related incidents - in February, April and May - which have led to six injuries and one death.

A nine-member demining team, led by the government body CNAMS, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and non-governmental organisation (NGO) Handicap International (HCI), has begun modest demining efforts near the Casamance capital, Ziguinchor, but Pascal Simon, technical adviser with the UNDP’s demining team, estimates scaling it up will require up to 250 people and US$30 million.

“We finally started demining a couple of months ago”, said Simon “but so far we’ve only been able to cover under 1 percent of the mined zones.”

Some 93 villages are mined, affecting 90,000 villagers, according to an April 2006 HCI and UNDP survey, and a further 149 villages are suspected to have mines.

The full extent of the problem is unknown because insecurity has barred evaluators from accessing some areas in the north and south, and because 60 villages have been abandoned, which meant there were no local informants to provide information on the extent of the mines.

“But the very fact that they were abandoned means we strongly suspect they could be contaminated by landmines and the presence of mines made them flee in the first place,” Simon said.

As a signatory of the Ottawa convention on banning landmines, Senegal was supposed to be rid of landmines by 2009, but has asked for an extension until

2016 to achieve this.

Photo: Anna Jefferys/IRIN
The inhabitants of 60 villages fled their land partly because it was mined, leaving them to stake a claim to it by leaving signs such as these.

Fruit left to rot on trees

Landmines have caused thousands of people to flee their villages and some 60,000 are now displaced in Senegal and across the border in Gambia and Guinea, according to Demba Keita, head of local NGO APRAN-SDP.

Many displaced families are forced to eke out a precarious existence in Ziguinchor, though they know they have a better chance of making a living at home.

“We’d love to return home - we have everything there - fruit, land, our homes, but we don’t dare,” Stéphanie Malak , a landmine victim who fled to Ziguinchor with her family, told IRIN.

The heavily mined border areas in the north and south have some of the most fertile land in the region but the cashews, mangoes, oranges and lemons are left to rot on the trees, according to Boubacar Ba, research adviser in the Ministry of Agriculture.

“We do not have exact figures but we know that thousands and thousands of tonnes of fruit and vegetables go to waste every year in these mined areas,” Ba said.

Main problem

The absence of an agreed peace process is the biggest obstacle to progress on demining, according to several individuals involved.

“There is a precondition for demining: We need to first find a peace agreement between the MFDC and the government of Senegal,” said Koussaynabo Alphonse Diédhiou, programme coordinator of the government agency for the revival of economic and social activities in Casamance (ANRAC).

A member of the project told IRIN: “If we’re going to make demining work, we need to liaise with the rebels, but this is not currently being encouraged.”

A peace accord is also essential to ensure all landmine stocks are destroyed, one of the conditions of the 1997 Ottawa agreement (to ban and destroy landmines) of which Senegal is a signatory.

The Senegalese army says it has destroyed all of the country’s stocks but the MFDC is still able to access stocks from across the border, according to an NGO worker.

Some worry that if progress on the demining programme is further delayed the number of victims may rise, as people start to return to their villages in spite of the dangers.

“We’re trying to inform them of how risky this is, and to make everyone realise returns of displaced people need to be integrated with our landmine awareness programme,” one official associated with the demining project told IRIN.

“But this is hard to do because there is no official returns process, since there is as yet no agreed path to peace.”

Civilians to take charge?

Many involved stress the need for demining efforts to be led by civilians, not the military, to get the MFDC on board, as outlined in the December 2004 peace agreement.

While this in theory has been agreed, factions of the Senegalese army still want more control over how it proceeds, said one official who asked not to be named.

In the absence of an official demining process, the Senegalese army has demined pockets of the region in the past few years, and in December

2006 launched a demining programme on the Gambia and Guinea Bissau borders in cooperation with the Moroccan army, but direct attacks by the MFDC put a stop to their activities.

There is confusion among civilian actors as to who plays what role in the process. Decentralisation currently under way in Senegal is devolving power to regionally elected councils and governors, and now they, too, want a say in the process.

Small steps

On the political front, while hopes for a solution to the region’s troubles appear slim, the local governor is undertaking a returns study which gives the Mine Action Centre a new chance to raise awareness of the risks mines pose for returnees.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is currently deploying teams to demarcate potentially dangerous areas, and is running mine-risk awareness training in up to 500 schools in contaminated areas. “There are relatively high awareness levels in Casamance about the dangers of mines, which is a good starting point,” said Christina de Bruin, UNICEF representative.

Some wings of the government are also starting to recognise the need to create opportunities to set up talks with the MFDC, which is an “encouraging sign”, according to one aid official.

“I don’t foresee a dramatic improvement in the situation but I do hope we can at least help sway the human security situation through our efforts” Simon said, adding: “Ultimately it is possible to start the demining process but it will only be possible to finish it if we have peace.”

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