Learning the hard way

International | Landmines make war on Sudan's innocent

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

Behind every bit of data about landmines in this region is at least one tale of woe. Government of Sudan (GOS) soldiers left behind thousands of anti-personnel and hundreds of anti-tank devices when they retreated from Blue Nile province. They did not leave a blueprint showing where the weapons are located. But the detonators are buried by the dozens in the most annoying places: around water wells, churches, in arable fields, and along riverbanks. Their intended victims, besides Christians in general, are apparently women and children. In this rural, undeveloped part of Africa, they are the ones who tend the fields, gather firewood, herd goats, and fetch water. The areas that are mined are usually discovered one tragedy at a time.

Thirteen-year-old Calipha was herding his goats last year when he stepped on a mine by a riverbank near Kurmuk. The blast took off his left arm below the elbow and his right thumb. "When it happened, I was unconscious, and did not realize what happened for days," he said. "Then it hurt very much." He told WORLD he was "not happy" to discover his injuries because they meant he would be helpless to family and friends. He said his mother wanted to die herself when she saw Calipha after the explosion; she is a widow and Calipha is her only boy and her breadwinner.

The handicap has not diminished Calipha's family responsibilities, and he has learned to compensate for a lost limb. Long finished with school-for most children in Blue Nile, education ends after primary level-he still tends a flock of goats for his mother and two sisters. Sometimes in his search for greener pastures he finds himself along the riverbank again. "God is there, and the people who put the landmines there are gone," he explains.

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Children are the prominent victims of landmine explosions. They often misunderstand the danger. Hamada Mohammed Abugureen, 18, another victim, lost his leg in March to a mine in the same riverbed, where he was sent to gather firewood. He said many people think of the landmines like crops: Their explosive power should fade like crops out of season, they reason.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), sponsored by UNICEF, estimates that about 2 million mines have been laid in Sudan during the last 15 years of civil war. But the agency is not counting the hundreds of thousands of mines that locals estimate are in Blue Nile. Because the United Nations has labeled this region a "no-go" area, none of the international agencies that have combated landmines in Bosnia, Kosovo, and other civil wars have ventured here. The Blue Nile Project of In Touch Mission International plans to set up local landmine detection this summer. Operation Save Innocent Lives (OSIL), a Sudanese agency, briefly cleared mines from the river area near Kurmuk. It took four men working one week to remove 500 mines and map portions of the riverbank for further removals. Even the experts, however, learned the landscape the hard way: As OSIL was finishing its Kurmuk work, one detection expert inadvertently stepped on a device and lost his foot in the explosion.


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