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31 October 2019

Community engagement is key to solving Sudan's landmine problem

Armida van Rij

ARMIDA VAN RIJ: Greater public trust and consultation is needed to improve demining efforts

Landmines in Sudan

Sudan is undergoing a period of great political transformation. The country’s decades-long dictator, Omar Bashir, was overthrown in April, and it has since begun the transition towards democracy – initially through peaceful protest but then through force, as the regime was eventually toppled by the military.

Under Bashir, corruption and bribes became the currency du jour, the economy plummeted, and development stagnated. He also ran a brutal militia, the Rapid Support Force, who are believed by the International Criminal Court to be responsible for heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Relations between northern and southern regions of Sudan deteriorated following independence from the British, eventually leading to the creation of South Sudan as an independent state in 2011. Getting there involved conflict and instability, and with that came the use of anti-vehicle and anti-personnel landmines, as well as unexploded ordnance (UXO), which continues to wreak havoc to this day.

Sudan‘s new placeholder President, Abdalla Hamdok, has said the transitional government’s priorities are peace and solving the country’s economic crisis. And for two states in Sudan’s southern areas, peace and prosperity go hand in hand with landmine clearance. While other regions have been almost entirely cleared of these hidden killers, Blue Nile and South Kordofan remain contaminated – a result of decades of conflict and hostilities between the Bashir’s government and various insurgent factions in the south, from both before and after South Sudan seceded.

The UK government, as part of its commitment to delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals, is keen to help with landmine clearance operations in the two states. As part of these efforts, the Department for International Development commissioned SafeLane Global Limited, the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the NGO Mercy Corps Europe to explore perceptions of demining and demining agencies among landmine-affected communities in Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

The research took place under highly challenging conditions. The conflict and instability that the people of these two regions have faced has inevitably caused great pain and suffering and negatively impacted livelihoods. We incorporated both conflict- and gender-sensitive approaches in the fieldwork, and did our utmost to ensure the safe involvement of research participants.

There are certain things we know about landmine clearance. Ridding the land of mines can be a precursor for peace, for example, and open up a path – quite literally – to economic development.

What is less well understood, however, are relations between landmine-affected communities and demining agencies. What are these communities’ perceptions of agencies tasked with landmine clearance, and how do they view their operations?

Clear communication and strong relations between the community and demining agencies are important for clearance work, according to our study. However, in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, these relations are currently fragile. We found that few people had interacted directly with demining organisations, and when they did, it was predominantly through workshops educating people about the risks of mines.

At the same time, we found that few people in Blue Nile and South Kordofan actually reported suspected mines when they come across them. Although many respondents stated that they had seen different UXO before, and that they would make a report if they were to come across it, few have actually done so. There was also a perception among respondents that, even if they were to report a suspicious item, nothing would come of it – in other words, that demining agencies would not mark or destroy it.

In contrast, people did seem positive about the impacts of demining on their communities. They reported that demining allowed them to work and travel to markets again to sell goods. There also appeared to be good relations between community leaders and demining agencies.

But our findings suggest that links between demining agencies and the wider public in Blue Nile and South Kordofan are not as strong as they could – and perhaps should – be. The two regions were for a long time closed off from the rest of the world, with only very limited humanitarian assistance being allowed into the areas, so it could be that demining agencies are not well established enough to gain the public’s trust.

At the moment, however, some community members do not feel properly understood by demining agencies, and are instead more likely to report suspicious items to security services. This is problematic, as there appears to be a gap in coordination between communities, security services and demining agencies. This ultimately means demining is not as efficient as it could be, and landmines remain a threat rather than being cleared safely.

Blue Nile and South Kordofan, as well as Sudan as a whole, still have a long way to go to achieve lasting peace and sustainable economic development. Landmine clearance operations that consult and empower affected communities are an important first step towards a safer and more prosperous country.

Armida van Rij is a Research Associate at the Policy Institute, King's College London.

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