Although no one had given the issue much thought until the ceasefire came into effect it has suddenly become clear to outsiders that that the Nuba Mountains are one of the most landmine-contaminated places on earth and urgent action is needed before international humanitarian organisations are willing to deploy.
NRRDO Mine Coordinator Yousif Ali estimates that 1137 people have been killed or injured on both sides of the Nuba Mts since the conflict began. He lists 29 landmine casualties evacuated to Loki in 2000, 25 in 2001. He stresses that "These figures only represent victims evacuated and treated. Many more will have died due to the lack of flights and the distances involved and the true figures are likely to be much higher."
NRRDO figures indicate the southeastern Nuba counties of Heiban and Nugurban are most heavily affected, with three times the number of mine victims of the other five counties. 90 per cent of fertile land is also unavailable due to the mine situation, claims NRRDO food security officer Mohamed Osman. He believes that almost the entire population of the rebel enclave has been affected by the use of landmines, both due to the inability to cultivate in the fertile valleys and by the difficulty in accessing waterpoints. He believes the total number affected is around 400,000, over twice the WFP estimates of around 157,000."
The effects of the blockade are evident everywhere, but particularly in the outlying villages, where the mining of water-points often necessitates 8 hours daily journeys to fetch water. Almost everyone is on the verge of starvation. As many as one in five hundred people have been killed or injured and landmine casualties were evident in every village. In Kurchi market one survivor was working as a tailor, with the only sewing machine to be seem in the entire area.
Almost all the existing roads are mined. The SPLA began construction of new roads since it acquired a couple of vehicles in November 2001, but road demining is a priority, following the realisation that relief access by land is impossible while the roads are all mined.
A recent UN assesment of Nuba relief needs conducted by the UN in late January indicated:"A fundamental constraint on virtually all economic activities and social services throughout the region is the almost complete absence of adequate arterial and feeder roads. There are the remnants of what were once good all-weather roads, and a network of dirt and sand tracks criss-crossing the region including through the lowland areas of the mountains. Large areas are impassable during the wet season and just after. Even in the dry season these tracks are rough and very demanding of vehicular traffic, which is necessarily limited to trucks, buses, four-wheel drives and bicycles. The tracks through the mountains are afflicted with land-mines. A fundamental priority for a cost-effective relief and rehabilitation programme will thus be immediate attention to this run-down road network, both in the short and long terms."
However, there are concerns that mine action merely to facilitate relief deliveries might not be the best way forward. OSIL director Aleu A Aleu complains that the JMC and the aid agencies are too concerned with food relief: "What the Nuba need now is self-sufficiency, not food security. It is vitally important to demine the fertile food-producing areas or the Nuba will risk becoming dependent on food aid as has happened in south Sudan"
Suleiman Rahhal of Nuba Survival points out: "The government has been using landmines to prevent people from cultivating and from moving within SPLA-controlled areas. The number of incidents are far higher on the rebel side, as is the level of suffering and need. Whilst there is need for opening the roads for emergency relief access, the only way to guarantee long term security is by demining the fertile valleys and ending the blockade. Until the entire area is cleared the population will still be under siege."
Demining operations are likely to be more complicated in the Nuba Mts than in the areas of the south where activities have already been conducted. Lack of infrastructure, harsh conditions and difficult terrain make all operations in this area far more complicated, costly and time-consuming than in most other places, warns the Sudan Integrated Mine Action Service.
"Working in the Nuba Mountains will be far more difficult than anywhere in the South. Just to visit three locations we have had to walk for six days, in temperatures above 50 degrees, with almost no water. The civilian population has been devastated, particularly through lack of access to water, but also because they have been completely cut off from the fertile plains. They need urgent action to alter the situation, but it will take a long time to get anything done in these conditions".
Whilst the UN Mine Action Service and several NGOs are planning on operating in the mountains, the only group currently operating is the US State Department QuicK Reaction Deminig Force, based in Mozambique. Team leader Col. Thomas Seal described the mission, starting in early May, as "the first concrete example of something happening on the ground since the cease-fire was declared".
"The Quick Reaction Demining Force’s mine clearance operations will lessen the likelihood of additional casualties, as refugees and internally displaced persons begin relocation into areas where mines are known to exist and into other areas suspected of being mined. In doing so, the mine clearance operations will contribute to the success of the first phase of the recently concluded cease-fire between the Government of the Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army and the operations of the internationally-led Joint Military Commission, in which the United States plays a leading role."
He describes the mission as "very finite, very specific, with a finite end date, with specific tasks assigned by the JMC." The key task will be "the main road network"; the end date, "the onset of the heavy rains, probably in June or July."
The legacy of landmines is likely to remain for some time.