A newly-cleared mine field was turned into an arena for a big bang today, as the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) demolished a 100kg air-dropped bomb in South Sudan, marking its one millionth destruction of explosive items in the world’s youngest nation.
“Today, UNMAS, the National Mine Action Authority, and the mine action operators in South Sudan have gathered to destroy an aircraft bomb which was recovered from Juba just last week, to commemorate the fact that together, we have now destroyed one million explosive items in this country,” declared Richard Boulter, the UNMAS South Sudan Programme Manager.
Mr. Bouler was speaking shortly after carefully coordinated safety briefings, a demo, and a call that was followed by the big bomb bang, with dark plumes of smog rising into the slightly murky tropical sky.
Witnessed by local and international journalists, the demolition took place at an isolated area near Jebel Lumuni, a small mountain located about 15km south of South Sudan’s capital, Juba.
“The bomb originated from Sudan; it was reported to us by South Sudanese National Police Service just two weeks ago,” said Mr. Boulter, when asked about the source of the explosive device.
“We then had an operation in Juba to knock the fuse off the bomb using special demining tools,” continued Mr. Boulter. “So, we first hit this bomb quite hard in Juba, without making it explode – to make it safe to move – and then we brought it out of town, to blow it out to show the power that it had.”
And indeed, the bomb did contain so much power as the group that had kept a safe distance learned later, on closer inspection of the pit where it had been placed before the destruction: a huge gulley of shattered earth was all that remained, with pieces of shrapnel now securely lodged into the earth, with no human casualties.
This was one of two bombs recovered from the same area, and Richard says the second will probably be used to destroy other hazardous explosive items.
Over the course of the last 14 years, UNMAS and partners have assessed and cleared 1250 square kilometres of land, according to Mr. Boulter, but approximately 39 square kilometres remain, comprising some 210 mine fields, 124 cluster strikes, and 35 battle areas. They expect to clear these known areas within the next three to five years.
But Mr. Boulter looks beyond the statistics on contaminated land, preferring to focus, instead, on the human toll of the presence of these hazardous devices.
“The most relevant number, I think, to report is that nine people have been hurt this month alone – one person killed and eight injured,” he says, adding, “This problem won’t go away on its own. Over all, the number now is, 5,035 people killed or injured: 1,383 people killed, and 3,652 people injured. These are the known people. Other people would have died in the bush, or simply never made it hospital; their deaths would go unrecorded.
The Chairman of the South Sudan National Mine Action Authority (NMAA), Mr. Jurkuch Barach Jurkuch, had the honour of pressing the button that set off the bomb, thus destroying it. He sees the work done by mine action partners as invaluable, expressing gratitude on behalf of his compatriots.
“If this job of mine-clearance was left to South Sudanese alone, I’m sure this work wouldn’t have finished, or we would not have been doing it to the expectations of the people [of South Sudan]. So, to the international community, we are grateful to them for the work done for the South Sudanese.”
According to Mr. Jurkuch, there are no new landmines in South Sudan resulting from its most recent five-year civil war, although many exploded ordnances remain from that very war, which was halted by the signing of a revitalized peace agreement in September last year.
Asked which parts of South Sudan are contaminated by landmines and other explosive hazards, Mr. Jurkuch quickly says,
“All over the south. All over the south,” adding, “South Sudan has been highly contaminated – the whole of South Sudan. But the most contaminated areas of South Sudan are in Equatoria in general, because the theatre of the war [with Sudan] was in Equatoria.”
At the frontline, are women and men putting their lives at risk for the sake of their country and people.
“I’m happy because this work can help our people, for agriculture free of mines,” says Rosephine Awate Martin, one of only four women on the frontline of mine clearance in her company, G4S.
“So, I’m happy to join and help our people. Instead of [the men] doing the work without women, we participate, together with our men, so that our country will benefit from the land,” adds Rosephine, who has been working in mine action for the last three years.
The demolition of the one millionth explosive item seemed like a momentous occasion for a memorable word of caution for those who may come into contact with suspicious items from Mr. Boulter:
“If anything looks like a bomb, if they suspect it, unless they’re absolutely know something is safe, don’t touch it. And if anybody sees something that they consider suspect, they need to call our hotline, which is 0920001055. We will send a team out and assess it. And if it’s an item of dangerous ordnance, we will destroy it.”