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A Firm Foothold: RONCO Operations in Sudan

Updated Tuesday, 17-Sep-2013 16:20:44 EDT

Over the past four years, RONCO has established a continuing presence in Sudan, following the Nuba Mountains ceasefire, with the deployment of quick-response teams to conduct emergency mine-clearance tasks. Currently, RONCO is creating and sustaining an indigenous mine-clearance, survey and disposal capacity in southern Sudan on behalf of the United Nations. In addition to the threat of extensively mined roads and infrastructure, RONCO had to overcome a number of obstacles, including inclement weather, disease and an increasing security threat due to rebel activity. Sudan’s austere and hostile conditions are not dissimilar to those RONCO experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq, but as RONCO has discovered in those two countries, the long-term impact of the work far outweighs its challenges.

Sudan presents a variety of problems for mine-action operations. Control of the country, which had been at war since 1983, is now divided between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army, with government forces claiming the majority of the north and both sides maintaining some control in the south. Both the government and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army used landmines throughout the civil war and as a result, landmines now pose a serious threat to civilians. For example, the United Nations reports that in 2004, landmines were responsible for more than 15 deaths and 30 injuries. The actual number of deaths and injuries has likely been higher but goes unreported due to the difficulty of access throughout much of the south. Internally displaced persons fleeing conflict areas such as the Darfur region are at particular risk because they have little or no local knowledge of potential threats and are often forced to move regardless of the potential landmine problem.

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Both the Sudanese government and the SPLA have accepted assistance from the United Nations, which is in the process of implementing a plan to eliminate Sudan’s landmine threat. In 2002, the United Nations established the National Mine Action Office in Khartoum, along with regional offices in central and southern Sudan, and various suboffices scattered throughout the country. From these locations, the United Nations carries out all aspects of mine action, including mine clearance, mine-risk education, survivors assistance and stockpile destruction. The NMAO is responsible for coordinating those efforts and helping build a lasting mine-action presence in the region. Unfortunately, its operations have often been interrupted by the ongoing conflict.

Following the most recent peace-treaty agreement between the government and the SPLA in January 2005, the United Nations moved quickly to establish the U.N. Advance Mission in Sudan with the goal of helping to ensure a lasting peace. It was quickly evident that mine-affected roads severely curtailed relief efforts and prevented development aid from reaching its destination, also hampering peacekeeping activities and affecting the food supply of more than two million people.

The RONCO Response

As a result of the above conditions, in May 2005, the United Nations contracted RONCO to provide the mine-action capacity necessary to support its programs. In response, RONCO deployed two international clearance teams to conduct emergency clearance tasks and a training team to develop a Sudanese demining/explosive ordnance disposal capacity in Wau and Malakal. Local capacity was to be developed in the following areas:

RONCO was uniquely prepared to quickly respond to the United Nations’ needs, having extensive experience creating and deploying its Quick Reaction Demining Force, a Mozambique-based team developed to respond to emergency tasks on short notice. RONCO initially deployed this force to Sudan in 2002, following the ceasefire agreement, where it greatly aided the safe return of internally displaced persons and increased the flow of humanitarian assistance through the Nuba Mountains. But the 2005 Sudanese deployment necessitated a more permanent force and the rapid development of local capacity. RONCO’s assistance included a management team, two international clearance teams and two training teams—each complete with medical and support staff, interpreters and all administrative, technical and logistical resources required. In just one month, this force was fully operational. It had established a liaison office in Khartoum, completed recruitment of local nationals, established two base camps in Malakal and Rumbek, begun all training preparations, and completed all certification requirements. Moreover, the force was flexible enough to take on a variety of EOD/demining tasks, quickly and efficiently train a local capacity, and cope with the unique challenges of demining in Sudan.

RONCO's MDD teams were integrated with manual and mechanical mine clearance operations in Southern Sudan.
All photos courtesy of RONCO

In September, under two additional U.N. contracts, RONCO began training EOD, battle-area clearance, demining and mine-risk education teams to increase capacity in the cities of Juba and Ed Damazin. Eight mine-detection dog teams were also trained in Kadugli, in central Sudan, where they are assigned to support RONCO’s demining teams, although they have also briefly deployed in support of two other clearance organizations in the south. Finally, a survey capacity was deployed to Wau. Since the initial training of the Sudanese mine-action team in May, RONCO teams have been involved in a variety of clearance tasks critical to U.N. operations, including the destruction of weapons caches, battle-area clearance on future U.N. sites, and road-clearance tasks crucial to the relief effort in southern Sudan.

The Challenges of Operating in Sudan

Based on their long history of operating in austere environments, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, RONCO’s teams were prepared for the challenges of operating in a remote and hostile environment. Nevertheless, operations in southern Sudan proved far from routine, and the difficulties of security, supply, lack of transportation infrastructure and the inhospitable weather proved to be a persistent challenge to RONCO operations in the country.

Security concerns. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that routinely crosses the border from Uganda into southern Sudan, is a concern for demining operations in the area. The group recently ambushed a Fondation Suisse de Déminage convoy near Juba and killed two deminers. As a result of this incident and a continued LRA presence in the area, RONCO was directed to close its forward camp and fall back to its base camp at Juba until the situation stabilized. A number of areas in the south are now considered off limits, and many areas require the presence of armed escorts. As discussed below, concern over the operations of the LRA had a major impact on RONCO’s operations on the Juba-to-Yei road.

Flooding during the rainy season made the roads in Malakal impassable at times.

Another major security concern arose in August, following the death of Dr. John Garang, the newly elected First Vice President of Sudan. As a result, the United Nations directed RONCO to suspend operations in Malakal for six days. In addition, security authorities in the area were stopping RONCO’s local nationals during their pre-dawn travel to the training/work sites. These precautionary detentions were impacting RONCO’s ability to train and operate. In response, RONCO created identity cards for its local nationals to vouch for their employment.

Supply challenges. Keeping operations supplied is hardly routine in Sudan, as road access throughout much of the south is difficult due to inadequate infrastructure, security issues, the presence of landmines and weather concerns, particularly during the rainy season. Supplying operations in Malakal proved especially difficult, as there is no road access to the city, necessitating the airlifting or barging of supplies down the Nile—a five-day trip from the nearest port, Kosti. In addition, the limited road access between Wau and Rumbek and the total lack of access between Rumbek and Juba also made air transport a necessity, even though it is expensive and, in Sudan, unreliable, sporadic, and sometimes extremely limited.

RONCO’s supply challenges didn’t end there. Getting equipment into the country has proven challenging; the Khartoum custom authorities continue to be slow in releasing shipments, not only for RONCO, but for the United Nations and others. In-country construction materials such as steel are expensive to procure, and bricks are smaller and of lesser quality than elsewhere. Gasoline has been of poor quality and very expensive, averaging as much as US$5.50 per liter (US$20.82 per gallon).

Weather and disease. Weather is a major factor in Sudan, and it can severely hamper operations. The daytime temperature can reach more than 122 F. During 2003, excessive heat precluded operations for 14 days in June, 10 days in July, 25 days in August and 20 days in September. During the rainy season, dirt roads turn to a thick mud, slowing operations to a crawl and hampering the mobility of all vehicles.

The terrain in southern Sudan also lends itself to flooding. The ground is low and flat with virtually no natural drainage, and the soil saturates quickly, resulting in standing water even during the brief periods when it is not raining. At times, some areas have been under as much as six to 10 inches of standing water. In Malakal in particular, the mud made operations almost impossible for three-and-a-half months in 2005, from August through November, forcing the relocation of RONCO training of local nationals from Malakal to the Nuba Mountains. While flooding was not quite as bad in Rumbek, RONCO operations there were shut down due to weather for more than 40 days in 2005. Bruce Burnett, RONCO’s Chief of Party in Sudan, summed up the relentless difficulties of the country’s weather: “In the wet season, nothing moves; and in the dry season, the ground is very hard, which makes demining extremely challenging.”

Disease, particularly malaria, is also a serious problem in Sudan—a problem exacerbated by the general lack of adequate medical facilities throughout the south. Instructing personnel on the proper use of a malaria prophylaxis has proven to be crucial in maintaining operational tempo. Rats and poisonous snakes are also a serious health hazard; tents that seal at the bottom and zip to the top are necessary to keep them out.

Overcoming the Challenges

Historically, RONCO’s experience is that the impact of clearance operations frequently outweighs its challenges. Despite medical, security, transportation and weather issues, along with extended downtime during clearance operations for the U.S. Department of State from 2003 to 2005, RONCO cleared hundreds of kilometers1 of roads. Within weeks of clearing the road to Kudru, the population grew from 15 to 90, and after the road to Luba was cleared, the population grew from 20 to over 100, significant increases that illustrate the importance of mine clearance in allowing refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes.

Similarly, while RONCO has met challenges during its 2005–2006 deployment for the United Nations, operations have yielded significant benefits for the local population. Clearance of the road from Juba to Yei involved overcoming numerous obstacles; since its completion in November, the impact of the operation is already having a visible effect. The United Nations designated the road as a high priority for clearance despite its location in the center of a highly dangerous area near the known location of LRA forces. While an armed section of U.N.-supplied Bangladeshi soldiers provided security at the task site, they were unable to provide an armed escort for supply runs into Juba, forcing re-supply by air. The cleared road now serves as a much-needed route for aid organizations and returning refugees and IDPs, and its clearance has facilitated trade with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, providing for the economic revitalization of the region.

RONCO is pleased to commit to building a local mine-action capacity in Sudan and to bringing long-term stability and development to the country. With this help, Sudan will soon have a growing ability to independently sustain its own demining and clearance operations.


John Lundberg was raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and now lives in Washington, D.C. He is a writer/editor with RONCO and a graduate of the College of William and Mary with graduate degrees from Florida State University, the University of Virginia and Stanford University. His freelance articles have appeared in the Oil and Gas Journal, the New England Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review.


  1. One kilometer is equal to 0.62 miles.

Contact Information

John Lundberg
RONCO Consulting Corporation
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