Margret has decided that South Sudan is not a place to raise children, but she is changing this for future generations. That’s why 10 years ago the mother of two joined the country’s 400 to 500 deminers, digging up remnants of past and present war bombs, unexploded ordnances and landmines.
She’s one of a growing number of women to take up the risky business, most of them mothers wanting to provide safety for their families. “It’s my way of contributing and making this country better,” she said. “I sent my children to Uganda, but I want them to come back one day. It’s a sacrifice for me, but a gain for those returning when the war is over.”
Landmines have a long history in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation that won independence from Sudan in 2011 after a long and violent liberation struggle. After just two years, a political squabble escalated into renewed civil war in late 2013, fracturing the new nation along ethnic lines. More than four million mines and explosive devices have been found and destroyed in South Sudan over the last decade, says the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS). While some accidents are recorded, UNMAS believes that at least 90% go unreported.
Margret currently works around Kolye village, a 30 minute drive on unpaved bumpy roads from the South Sudanese capital Juba in a lush setting of green fields and mango trees. The area saw heavy fighting between the Sudanese army and southern rebels during Sudan’s long civil war which ended in 2005, paving the way for the South’s independence.
Deadly anti-personnel fragmentation mines were laid by Khartoum’s forces to protect their barracks. More than a decade later, they are still killing civilians. While mines are easy to place, they are hard to remove. After an eight-week training course, Margret has dug out hundreds of them throughout her career and on a good day she can cover up to 30 square metres (320 square feet). “We can use the safe land to build roads, hospitals and schools and that’s what excites me the most,” she smiled. According to UNMAS’s demining chief, Tim Lardner, it will take at least another 10 years to clear up the whole country that is roughly the size of France.
South Sudan signed the Mine Ban Treaty less than six months after independence in 2011, deeming anti-personnel mines illegal and their removal mandatory. Renewed war has complicated efforts to remove mines from previous conflicts, while rebel forces, without providing evidence, have accused the government of laying new explosives in violation of the treaty, a charge it denies.
– By Stefanie Glinski