People in at least 44 villages in Casamance, southern Senegal, can once again cultivate their fields and rice paddies thanks to Italian government-funded demining efforts, though over 100 other villages - abandoned more than 10 years ago - remain no-go areas.
The demined land was handed over on 20 December by officials of the National Centre for Mine Action in Senegal.
Pape Oumar Ndiaye, secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said it was a milestone in demining in Casamance, which began in February 2008, and “a substantial contribution to the resolution of the landmine problem”.
“By freeing the land from the negative impact of landmines, we create the conditions for the return of displaced communities in their region of origin,” he said.
The 44 villages are in the following places: two in Boghal District; 24 in Bona locality, Bounkiling Department; 14 in Djibanar District; and four in Simbandi Brassou locality, Goudomp Department.
Casamance, a rich agricultural area, has endured a 30-year campaign for independence by the armed Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), which laid landmines, forcing locals to abandon thousands of hectares of land.
“There is not yet a precise assessment of the extent of contamination, although the most credible estimate was provided in May 2012. Senegal informed the inter-sessional Standing Committee meetings that 36 suspected localities covering an estimated area of 3.5km2 required technical survey and might require clearance,” says the Land Mine and Cluster Monitor.
An escape from poverty?
“Many villages in the area were abandoned; thousands of young people left… People resigned themselves to poverty. So the release of this land is a huge humanitarian gesture because it will allow thousands of families affected by deep poverty to resume a normal life. You know here in Casamance, the land is the main source of wealth… It is what secures our existence,'' said Dieylani Diatta, head of Djibanar rural community.
“For us the demining represents a return to normal life. This will allow people to escape from the poverty into which the landmines plunged them,'' said Lamine Faty, mayor of Bounkiling.
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''It really is a great day for us. We will once again take up cultivating… In the past, we had good harvests and did not suffer at all,'' said Demba Djigaly, a resident of a small village not far from Bounkiling.
Since 1990, mines have killed or injured more than 800 civilians and military personnel in Casamance, and displaced tens of thousands.
On 2 December three Gambians were killed when their timber truck hit a mine in the village of Pilai, Casamance.
Earlier in 2012 there were concerns about a slowdown in demining after Handicap International’s contract ran out and a new player entered the scene, with little knowledge of the local terrain.
Senegal is a signatory of the Ottawa Treaty - the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction - and has been given an extension until 2016 to eradicate landmines.