In the South Sudanese town of Rokon, sniffer dogs practise finding explosives as an enormous demining machine churns up the soil in a nearby suspected minefield.
A former Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) soldier is helping NGO Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) in the search for mines in what was a SAF garrison town during the 22-year civil war with the southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). In 2005, a peace accord paved the way for the creation in July 2011 of an independent South Sudan.
"These mines were mainly laid in 1991, in 1994 and 1999 by the SAF and the SPLA on both sides of the river and in belts around roads and bridges," said Moses Bidhali, who manages NPA's mine clearance activities in Rokon.
The Mine Action Programme has found four anti-tank mines, eight anti-personnel mines and 15 unexploded pieces of ordnance (UXOs) from tanks, bombs and guns over the past six weeks, with local knowledge of SAF mine belts massively speeding up the arduous process of checking 229,000 sqm.
"The threat in South Sudan is not the [number] of land mines, it's the lack of information about where they are," said Terje Eldoen, the NGO's national mine action programme manager.
According to the UN's Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA) database, in 2010, 52 people were injured and 22 killed in 19 reported landmine accidents throughout South Sudan. In the first 10 months of 2011, 75 people were injured and 33 killed in 28 landmine accidents.
John Taban Barnaba, 35, was a SAF soldier for 18 years before working for NPA's mine programme in Rokon, an agricultural area two hours' drive down bumpy dirt tracks from the capital Juba.
"It's good that the mines will be taken out because people will be happy and also be able to move freely in the area," he said of his hometown.
People have trickled back to Rokon and despite no one being hurt in a mining incident, people are very wary of using the land.
"Our main focus here is that we need to make sure that people come to the areas, to rebuild the place and to carry on with their normal agricultural activities," Bidhali says.
Like 80 percent of South Sudan's population, Rokon's residents survive on subsistence farming. With only 4 percent of the country's very fertile soil utilized, the government has earmarked the development of agriculture as a priority. It hopes one day that food exports can reduce its 98 percent dependence on oil revenues and in the short term, curb rampant inflation of food products in the import-reliant country.
Demining agencies in South Sudan had estimated that the country, which has been devastated by war and lacks basic infrastructure, would be cleared of mines in seven years, paving the way for development of roads and food production.
Nigel Clarke, programme manager for the Danish Demining Group, says almost one million UXOs and 25,000 mines have been cleared from South Sudan over the last eight years.
But despite a peaceful secession from the north in July, insecurity plagues South Sudan. Militia groups are still fighting the government, and new mines have been laid in states such as Unity by suspected militia since the start of the year, when the country voted almost unanimously for independence in a referendum.
The UN says mining incidents have been increasing, the most recent on a road between Mayom and Mankien on 9 October, which killed 20 people when an anti-tank mine exploded under a passenger bus.
Demining agencies have been very active in the area and the bus had reportedly used the same road several times that day. As the dry season approaches, there are concerns that mines will be laid even more quickly as mobility increases.
"We're vulnerable to people watching us clearing the road and then laying new mines when we're gone," said Lance Malin, programme manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC).
"We predict the situation is going to get worse, not better... This re-mining is above and beyond the problem we had," Malin said. The UN has increased demining activities in Unity and other states.
"We believe groups are laying mines up there to restrict the movement of civilians and the humanitarian community," Malin said.
The UN says new minefields are still being discovered through a worrying trend of personal trial and error.
More than 300,000 people have returned from the north to settle in their new country and many are travelling through the northern states on foot or by road. Earlier this year, another 110,000 fled Sudanese troops who occupied the contested region of Abyei and headed south to states such as Unity.
"In the last four months, I would say probably since May, there has been a marked number of incidents [in areas around Unity]," said Clarke.
"One of our concerns as an agency is the Abyei situation. We know that mines have been laid in Abyei and we know that there are new UXOs lying around," he said, citing the deaths of four peacekeepers from the Ethiopian-led UN force in Abyei (UNISFA) in an anti-vehicle mine incident in August.
"If the displaced Nok Dinka, and there are 110,000 of them at least, are to go back to Abyei, then there needs to be a new mine action clearance programme," Clarke added, fearing also for those displaced from war-torn Blue Nile and South Kordofan where violence between SAF and rebel groups has raged for months.
South Sudan's military spokesman Philip Aguer on 30 October claimed that a large rebel group that attacked Mayom town in Unity state and is thought to have killed 15 civilians had come from South Kordofan.
"They were given a lot of mines on the 26th of this month," in Heglig, a town in South Kordofan, he claimed.
The fear factor
"The real and perceived threat of mines has prevented people from using land for agricultural and housing development [in Unity]," said Sarah Holland, UNMACC programme officer.
"The locals are paranoid that there's a mine under every stone... But every time, we've drawn a blank," said Chris Fielding, UNMACC operations specialist who recently returned from Unity.
But in Rokon, Barnaba is excited about his new country and says he has already seen good things happening, with improved security encouraging people to build better houses and grow more.
"Before, people were cultivating on a small scale because of the fear of mines. But now that the mines [have been destroyed], I'm sure production will increase," he says.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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