SUDAN: Land mines add to security worries in south
Years of hard work undone? New mines are reportedly being laid in violation of a 1997 international ban
JUBA, 6 June 2011 (IRIN) - Fighting between the Southern Sudanese army and an array of armed opposition movements is severely limiting the ability of humanitarian agencies to reach vulnerable populations, aid workers say.
In oil-rich Unity State, where the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is fighting forces loyal to Peter Gadet, a former SPLA commander who joined the army after leading a Khartoum government-backed militia during the north-south civil war, then launched a new rebellion in April, there have been civilian casualties.
UN officials say a worrisome trend is the laying of new land mines. Tim Horner, deputy director of the UN Mine Action Office in Southern Sudan, told IRIN on 4 June that his organization had seen an increase in the number of “mine incidents and accidents” in the past six months. Although he said it was not possible to know definitely whether these incidents, in the oil-producing Greater Upper Nile region of the south, were due to cases of “re-mining”, he stressed that the anecdotal evidence pointed in that direction.
“It’s sad because we’ve had a lot of success in mine action, it’s been extremely successful over the past six years,” said Horner.
Sudan is party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines.
On 26 April, the UN issued a security advisory for key roads through two counties, Mayom and Abiemnom, in Unity State, “due to the suspected presence of land mines”.
On 12 May, the road between the state capital of Bentiu and Tharjath, which has a private oil company airstrip also used by commercial airlines, was declared Category 4 or “no go” when two oil company water tankers and one commercial truck were “blown up by three anti-personnel mines”, according to a UN report on the incident. The advisory noted that the security category was increased “in view of indications of more mine laying activity in the area”.
UN security reports from the past two months highlight a number of incidents. According to one, a young boy stepped on a mine in Mayom County on 17 May and lost both feet.
“The laying of mines since January is seriously impeding humanitarian access,” said Lise Grande, UN Deputy Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator for Southern Sudan. “Mines are being laid in areas where rebel militia groups are active,” she added.
Aid groups operating in Unity, where, according to the UN Mine Action Office, there were six incidents alone in the first two weeks of May, report having to effectively cease operations.
“The start of the fighting in Mayom County in late April has affected our capacity to carry out our outreach-based ambulatory therapeutic feeding programme. As of mid-May, we had no choice but to stop movements out of Bentiu after receiving reports of land mines located on several roads we normally use for outreach visits to treat children with severe malnutrition,” said Gautam Chatterjee of Médecins Sans Frontières in Southern Sudan.
In its quarterly report, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that the humanitarian access situation had deteriorated sharply in recent months, highlighting the “commandeering of humanitarian vehicles and demands for use of humanitarian assets by [the] Sudan People’s Liberation Army” as among the most cited problems by OCHA’s humanitarian partners.
Also detailed in the OCHA report were multiple reports of “violence against [aid] personnel, facilities, and assets”, with “threats and abuses targeting humanitarian staff, assets, and compounds - by both security services and local authorities” the most common type of incident reported to OCHA in the first quarter of this year.
The agency said the most serious incidents occurred in Lakes State, where “six humanitarian vehicles travelling through Lakes were commandeered by SPLA troops and five of the drivers were made to drive into an area in Unity State where clashes erupted. The whereabouts of two of the drivers were unknown for two weeks and subsequent reports indicate that one of the drivers was killed.” OCHA also details other cases of commandeering of vehicles by SPLA troops in Lakes in May, including one on 14 May when drivers of two humanitarian vehicles were forced “to transport arms and ammunition”.
Chatterjee told IRIN a combination of factors was drastically impeding the group’s ability to serve needy and conflict-affected populations in Unity, including a blockade on at least two of the critical north-south trade routes (imposed by the northern government) in early May and insecurity.
"Since the end of April, it's been very difficult to go to these places [in Unity State] because of the fighting," Chatterjee told IRIN. He said the fighting had also resulted in homes being raided and cattle stolen. "It will increase food insecurity," he said, noting that the yearly "hunger gap" in Southern Sudan began with the onset of the rainy season and is likely to be more severe this year, given the loss of livelihoods and the inability of villagers to plant crops before the rainy season, which began last month.
He said that malnutrition figures were up to three times as high this year on the same period last year.
The road from the main airstrip to the state capital has been declared a “no-go” zone by the UN peacekeeping mission due to the land mines that have been laid in the past two months of army-rebel conflict.
The top local government official in the area where the fighting has been most intense is appealing for support for what he estimates are 7,800 people in his county who have been displaced by the fighting.
“It has become very difficult for civilians to move out from the fighting [because of the mines],” Mayom County Commissioner Charles Machieng Kuol told IRIN. “The fighting is a threat to community development,” he said, noting that there was no effective security on his county’s northern border with the state of Southern Kordofan, which, he says, militia forces loyal to Gadet are using as a rear base for their operations.
Kuol said civilians had been caught in the crossfire, and that women and children were particularly vulnerable and unable to flee the fighting.
Commandeering of NGO vehicles and siphoning of fuel by southern troops has also been reported to OCHA in Juba on several key routes to Warrap State, where tens of thousands of people displaced after the northern army’s invasion of the disputed north-south border zone of Abyei have sought refuge.
Blockades imposed by the northern government in early May on the routes from north to south, which carry the bulk of the fuel and food supplies for densely populated southern border towns, including Bentiu and Wau, are increasing the severity of the situation and further curtailing the humanitarian response to the post-Abyei crisis.
The manager of the only petrol station in Wau that still had reserves told IRIN they would soon run out. Bol Ahol Ngor of the Nile Petroleum Petrol Station said transporting fuel from Kenya to Wau, near the northern Sudanese border, took twice as long and cost roughly three times as much as bringing fuel from Khartoum.
With Southern independence just over a month away, internal conflict and badly strained north-south relations threaten to further derail humanitarian efforts in the south through independence and beyond.