Women-only demining teams tackle South Sudan's legacy of war

20th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

Annet is part of an all-female demining team, working to make safe the dangerous former battlefields of southern Sudan and open up land so people can return home.

Bungu -- When Faiza Annet waves her daughter off to school, it's the seven-year-old who warns her mother to take care.

Annet is part of an all-female demining team, working to make safe the dangerous former battlefields of southern Sudan and open up land so people can return home.

"My daughter tells me to be safe each time I say goodbye," said Annet, who works for one of two women's teams run by Norwegian People's Aid (NPA).

"But it is important work: I became a demining lady because I saw my friends injured, even some died," the 27-year-old added.

Kneeling on the ground at the end of a thin passage cleared through the tall and thick grass, she gently places a plastic marker above potential landmine.

It's hard work, but the women say they also struggle hard to convince others in their community they can do a job regarded by many as a role for a man.

"At first it was not easy," Annet added, splashing water onto a suspect area to soften the sun-baked earth, allowing her to gently slide a probe into the ground.

"People thought that I was maybe sacrificing myself to die, because mines are something that are so dangerous."

The work -- both by male and female teams -- is badly needed.

Some two million people died in Sudan's north-south war, a 22-year long conflict fought over religion, ideology, ethnicity and oil.

Northern government troops and southern rebel forces laid mines to protect strategic positions, while mortars, rockets or bombs were exchanged from either side.

The war ended in a 2005 peace deal, but the dangerous legacy of war remains hidden in the soil, and reports of death -- or limbs being ripped off -- by remaining explosives are all too common.

"The community want to use the land to rebuild the school," said deminer Tabu Monica Festo, strapping on her heavy protective jacket before returning down the corridor of red markers into the danger zone.

"So we are clearing the land for them, so they can bring the community back here to live."

Bungu, a small settlement nestled between wooded hills some 30 miles (50 kilometres) from the southern Sudanese capital Juba on a key supply route towards the Ugandan border, was a heavy battle zone in the war.

The work is tough: shifts of 45 minutes in the baking sun wearing heavy bomb-blast vests, slowly creeping forward only after every inch (2.5 centimetres) of ground has been searched and made safe.

"There is something there, because the metal detector makes a different noise," Annet said, listening as the high pitch squeaks from the hand-held machine reveal a potential explosive beneath the ground.

"Later, we will manually remove the soil to check what is there beneath the surface."

Unable to remove the thick plastic face shields inside the danger area, the team can only drink water on a 15-minute break in a safe zone.

At lunch, in the tent camp base outside the minefield, the women laugh with their pregnant team leader - now temporally assigned a logistical role.

"Being only women in the team makes us better at our work," said leader Jamba Besta, who will receive three months maternity leave, with the following nine months tackling office duties, before being allowed to return to active demining.

"Sometimes people say women cannot do such things, but they are wrong: we can."

Others feed and play with their children, and fix each other's hair as they rest in the shade of a spreading mango tree.

There is chat of families back home in the market town of Yei -- two hours south of the camp -- and how they will dress up when they return back for their leave.

But the team have won the respect of the men.

"The women do just as good a job as we can," said Atom Julius Pitia, an NPA supervisor and a former southern rebel solider.

"It's true that sometimes they may be slower, especially when digging in the hard ground," Pitia added.

"But they are also often more thorough than the men - and in this business, that is something of vital importance, because you don't want to miss a mine."

Similar all-women teams work elsewhere in the world, including in Kosovo and Cambodia, but the ones in Sudan are the first in the war-torn country, according to Kjell Ivar Breili, NPA's programme manager.

Breili said the female teams have recently beaten several of the six male teams NPA runs in terms of the number of explosives cleared.

"We don't have problems of fighting or drinking with the women," Breili said.

Since the war ended, deminers have opened up over 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) of roads in southern Sudan, and cleared more than 813,000 unexploded ordnance or landmines, the UN's Mine Action Office (UNMAO) said.

The women's teams have also impressed the UN.

"The NPA female demining team demonstrates that women can be just as effective as their male counterparts in dealing with the legacy of landmines from Sudan's civil war," said Joseph McCartan, deputy director for UNMAO.

"They are deployed on exactly the same tasks as their male colleagues."

The women doing the hard work are aware of the risks but they shrug off the danger with nonchalance.

"If you follow the procedures it is not dangerous," said Festo.

"It's much safer than if people were walking here without us to clear the mines away."


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