According to relief workers, widespread mine and UXO contamination has already discouraged millions of displaced Sudanese from returning to their homes and resuming agricultural activity. It has also affected the delivery of vital emergency assistance.
"One suspected mine can close down a road or a field for a long time," Stephen Robinson, technical advisor for the Southern Sudan Regional Mine Action Office, told IRIN. In October, for example, 75 percent of food assistance to the region had to be delivered by air because of the poor conditions of the roads and the suspected presence of mines, he added.
Although the estimated number of mines in Sudan is believed to be smaller than that in some other conflict-affected areas in the world, their impact is high because many of them have been planted in unpredictable ways, rather than as part of larger minefields.
"According to our latest estimates, there are about 10,000 mine victims in Sudan," Jab Swab, senior technical advisor for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Sudan, told IRIN on 21 November in the capital, Khartoum. "The capacity to provide physical rehabilitation and psychological assistance is very limited, especially in the south."
Robinson estimated that 80 percent of the casualties in Sudan resulted from explosive remnants of anti-tank mines and 20 percent had resulted from anti-personnel mines.
"[The] opening up of transport corridors and airfields, to allow for the safe return of displaced people and the delivery of relief aid, are key demining priorities - particularly in the light of the 800,000 to one million people that the UN predicts may come back to south Sudan in 2005, if peace returns," he added.
Tony Connell, programme manager of the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action estimated that landmines in southern Sudan had affected three million people.
UN trying to reduce risk
In anticipation of a peace accord between Khartoum and the SPLM/A, both warring parties invited the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in September 2002 to assist them in creating a national mine action strategy and to jump-start demining efforts in Sudan.
The accord, expected by the end of the year, could trigger a substantial influx of aid for development and reconstruction into the region. However, since the widespread presence of mines in the area would slow down these efforts considerably, UNMAS is coordinating emergency demining efforts that aim to open up strategic transport corridors.
"From the moment UNMAS started its operations in Sudan in September 2002, we have received 907 reported cases of deadly mine incidents," Takuto Kubo, external relations officer for the National Mine Action Office told IRIN in Khartoum. "We estimate that 3,000 or more people have been killed by landmines."
"The main problem we face is a lack of capacity and a lack of access," Kubo added. "There are about 250 deminers for all of Sudan and an average deminer can clear between 10-20 sq mt a day."
Mine-risk education is a crucial part of the UNMAS mission. In Kapoeta, for example, the need for awareness-raising activities is obvious, as young boys herd their cattle or goats right through suspected minefields, ignoring lines of white and red stones or danger signs marked with skulls.
Kapoeta is a regional centre in the southeastern state of Eastern Equatoria - about two hours drive from the Kenya border. The town, in the middle of SPLM/A-controlled territory, was occupied by government forces from 1992 until June 2002, when it was recaptured by the SPLM/A after a fierce battle.
Two years later, the signs of war are still present. About half the buildings in the town are no more than shells with only parts of the walls still standing. Other buildings that are still intact are riddled with bullet holes.
The town is littered with the remains of tanks, trucks, and armoured vehicles and most of the entrance roads still bear the signs of manholes and makeshift bunkers.
"Three cows were killed [by landmines] in November," SPLM/A Brigade Commander in the area, Elias Lino, told IRIN in Kapoeta.
Private firm clearing mines
A private South African demining company, MECHEM, has been clearing the notorious 90 km of mined road between Lokichokio in Kenya and Kapoeta. Contracted by UNMAS, MECHEM has cleared some 60 mines along this road since February. Its officials said vehicles delivering international aid could now pass safely.
Demining trucks crossing Buna river in southern Sudan
However, lines of red stones along certain parts of the road remind truck drivers that the safe passage can be dangerously narrow. On 25 September, a truck that tried to go around a deep mud puddle, hit an anti-tank mine next to a newly reconstructed road outside Kapoeta.
Given the neglected state of most roads in southern Sudan, demining activities have to be integrated with road reconstruction efforts to make them suitable for use by heavy trucks, UNMAS officials said.
Even when rehabilitation efforts were properly planned and executed, logistical difficulties in such remote locations remain daunting. On 24 November, for example, the Kapoeta region received 87mm of rain in one day, turning a newly constructed road into a thick and muddy mess. MECHEM lost a jeep in a shallow stream, which suddenly turned into a dangerously powerful river.
MECHEM uses sophisticated demining equipment, including trained dogs, vehicle-mounted, mine-detection systems and vacuum cleaner-type machines to analyse air particles. According to Ritiev Horn, a 35 year-old former South African soldier, the elevated armoured vehicles used in demining were previously used in apartheid South Africa for "riot-control, urban warfare, border-control and during the wars in Namibia and Angola."
Another demining group working in Kapoeta is Operation Save Innocent Lives (OSIL), which was established by the SPLM/A in 1996 and mainly employs ex-SPLM/A soldiers. Using much less sophisticated equipment, they were clearing a site, planned as a future food distribution centre.
Akech Atheo, a 37-year-old former SPLM/A soldier from the Upper Nile province, who was released from the SPLM/A to head the OSIL demining team, told IRIN: "OSIL has had one accident so far - one team-member lost a leg in the southern Blue Nile province in 2000."
Demining and peacebuilding
Besides making the country safer and facilitating the return of displaced people and the delivery of humanitarian assistance, demining activities help to foster peace. According to relief workers, an important aspect of every peace process is the demobilisation of ex-combatants, which can put a heavy load on already fragile communities.
"UNDP is employing former soldiers to assist in the demining of community land, which provides them with some money and facilitates their social re-integration into their communities," Swab explained.
The creation of the joint north-south strategy to deal with Sudan’s mine problem has also facilitated the peace process.
"Former enemies were forced to work together, cross enemy lines into each other’s territory to identify and clear minefields and coordinate demining activities in the same area," Robinson told IRIN on 25 November.
Local people want peace
"People have been talking about peace for 10 months now," John Deng Duit, ammunitions carrier for the SPLM/A - since he was 14 years old - told IRIN. "It has been too long. It is important that peace comes quickly, otherwise, anything can happen."
The Sudanese government and the SPLM/A signed a memorandum of understanding on 19 November in which they agreed to conclude a final peace deal by the close of the year. The agreement was signed during a meeting of the UN Security Council in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
The war in the south erupted in 1983 when the SPLM/A took up arms against authorities based in the north to demand greater autonomy. In May, the government and the SPLM/A signed six key protocols in Naivasha, covering power-sharing arrangements and the administration of three contested areas during a six-year interim period that will precede a referendum to determine whether the south would remain part of Sudan.
Sudan is taking part in the deliberations of a global summit on landmines that opened in Nairobi on Sunday. The summit is reviewing the mine ban treaty, which was formulated in Ottawa, Canada, in 1997 and entered into force in 1999. So far, more than 150 out of 191 UN members have signed.