Ziguinchor — Removing the landmines from villages, farms and plantations of Casamance in southern Senegal has taken several years to get up to speed, but now demining teams may be forced to step down, hampering the country's ability to reach its Ottawa Treaty goal of eliminating anti-personnel mines by 2016.
Activities started slowly in 2008 and have picked up pace since then. Sixteen villages were re-opened In March 2011, and in mid-June 2012 six more were declared mine-free and ready for habitation.
But hundreds of villages and thousands of hectares of farmland are still mined - Jean-François Lepetit, Casamance Head of Mission for NGO Handicap International (HI) estimates at least 90 percent of the total mined land is yet to be cleared, most of it in northern Casamance along the Gambian border.
HI supports the National Centre for Mine Action in Senegal (CNAMS) in the three regions of Casamance: Ziguinchor, Sedhiou and Kolda. HI does the demining while CNAMS oversees and coordinates related activities - mine-risk education, victim assistance, and advocating the abandonment of the use of landmines.
While CNAMS will continue in its oversight role, a new partner - a private South African firm - will take over the demining in terms of the initial contract between HI and its funders, which required two separate firms to do the work. Staff worry mining will slow down over the next year, given the new firm will need to find and train deminers and get to know the terrain and political context.
Mines are still being planted in Sindian, 100km north of the capital, Ziguinchor, where fighting continues between the rebel Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) and the Senegalese military. Parts of the southern border with Guinea-Bissau also remain mined, said Lepetit. A 2006 Canadian-backed study indicated the presence of mines in the southern Kolda region, but demining has not even begun there, noted Anne-Sophie Trujillo, head of HI in Senegal.
In early July 2012 several MFDC rebels were reportedly killed and two Senegalese military were injured in a skirmish with Senegalese forces near the town of Emaye, 40km west of Ziguinchor, according to the Senegal army.
From hand to machine
Demining requires a steep learning curve, as each context is so different. HI, which has demined areas in Bosnia, Chad, Mozambique, Lebanon and now Libya, among other places, said it took two years to train local teams - team leaders need 18 months of intensive training - and to properly understand the terrain.
In 2010 the organization discovered that their hand-held metal detectors could not detect a Belgian mine used in at least five locales and turned to mining by hand - a "painstakingly slow" process, said Trujillo. In 2011 they bought a US$440,000 "demining bulldozer," which can cover 200 times as much ground in a day, does not require lengthy soil preparation, and is safer for the operator. "Now, when you look at cost-efficiency, it's really working," Trujillo said. "It is the very worst moment for us to leave [Casamance]."
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, with further funding from the European Union and others.
The European Union Senegal delegation head, Dominque Dellicour, sounded positive about reaching the 2016 deadline, while pushing the government to put forward its own funding at the village-opening ceremony in June, which was also attended by Foreign Minister Alioune Badara Cissé, and Head of CNAMS, Papa Oumar Ndiaye, who called the occasion a "landmark" in mine action activities.
But Trujillo is not convinced. "With one team working at a time, demining will not finish by 2016," she told IRIN. The director of CNAMS, the Senegalese government, peace-building NGOs such as SOS Casamance, and many residents want HI to stay, but "no one can find the money", said Lepetit.
HI will still rehabilitate the land and villages even if others are doing the demining. "We have a duty to the people of Casamance... we have earned their confidence in this unstable region," said Trujillo. HI will continue its peace building and development work in the area, giving psycho-social support to mine survivors and villagers, providing water and sanitation to schools and villages, mine education in schools, and supporting women affected by domestic violence, said Trujillo.
Parties to the conflict committed to stop using mines in the 2004 peace agreement, but have not adhered to this. MFDC rebels have largely supported demining in areas other than near their (mainly northern) bases.
"A new life is beginning"
Diédhiou Ibrahima, president of the rural community of Adéane, one of the newly cleared villages east of Ziguinchor, can finally go back to working his fields and his children will once again attend school. "Here we are in a school and the area cleared is just metres from the school - access has been forbidden for years... This means so much to us."
Diamé Fatou, a mother and resident of Gonoumé, told IRIN: "For years, we dared not fetch dead wood or pick fruit. Every year, hundreds of tons of fruit rot in the bush while we live in abject poverty. It's really as if a new life is beginning for us."
Mines have seriously slowed down socio-economic development in the region, limiting access to farmland and cashew cultivation, and diminishing trade with neighbouring countries, Foreign Affairs Minister Cissé told the audience at the June ceremony. "Anti-personnel mines are indiscriminately destructive weapons and can render permanent trauma among people whose daily lives risk physical danger," he said.
Mines were first laid by MFDC rebels and the Senegalese army in 1990 as part of 30-year armed conflict that has kept parts of southern Senegal volatile. Since then, mines have killed more than 800 civilian and military people in Casamance, and displaced tens of thousands.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]