South Sudan: The Role of Bangladeshi Military Deminers

by Md Tarek Abdullah [ United Nations Mission in Sudan ]

This article is an endeavor to give an overview of the mine and unexploded ordnance situation in South Sudan, highlighting the role of the Bangladesh Military Demining Platoon (formerly the Bangladesh Military Demining Company). Ultimately, their efforts served to clear 2,733,858 square meters (676 acres) in five of the country’s most affected areas.

Mine and ERW victim map for South Sudan.
(Click image to enlarge)
Mine and ERW victim map for South Sudan.
Photo courtesy of IMSMA, UNMAO Sudan

As a result of 20 years of armed conflict between the government of Sudan and non-state armed groups, Sudan is contaminated with mines and explosive remnants of war. As of December 2007, the Information Management System for Mine Action database contained records on 1,427 affected areas, and nearly three-quarters of the areas identified were located in South Sudan.1 There are an estimated 4.8 million internally displaced persons in Sudan.2 Although there has been relative peace in the country since 2005, refugees continue to encounter landmines and ERW as they return to their land.

During a conflict, combat engineers are trained to make lanes for assaulting offensive forces to reach a defensive area protected by minefields by breaching the minefield manually and by using mine rollers, flails or mine ploughs once it has been determined there is negligible enemy interference. Vipers or line charges are used to create safe lanes for the attackers or while conducting a tactical re- deployment. On the other hand, demining is conducted following the cessation of hostility under secured political and military situations. The most important difference between the two kinds of mine clearance is the safety factor. For combat engineers, time is of critical importance, meaning that the minefields they breach are not cleared to a level that is safe for civilians. They are clearing just enough land to pass through and reach a military objective, but the land remains contaminated and is not ready for civilians to use later. Demining, however, is specifically designed to render mined areas safe for civilian use. Standard operating procedures ensure deminers’ safety and the work is comparatively more humanitarian in purpose. Usually, humanitarian demining procedures are not followed in the army, but the SOPs have been incorporated by armies that are engaged in demining under the United Nations umbrella. For military deminers it is a challenge to switch from military demining to the methods employed in humanitarian demining. The blue caps broke the skyline of tall elephant grasses as the explosive ordnance disposal team moved out of the worksite to take a drink break at a demolition site in South Sudan. The Officer Commanding1 looks on from the administrative area waiting for an inspection of the site. The OC asks a young EOD operator, “Are you stressed under the tropical sun in the thorny bushes on a foreign soil?” “No Sir!” the young EOD operator yells. “It is my pride to serve humanity for the first time abroad.” Feeling happy with the answer, the OC comments, “I hope this is not a military response and you really feel
that way inside.”

The OC was impressed when he observed a large pile of UXO stacked in a demolition pit ready for the first destruction of the day. The team had just completed a painstaking job. Another surprise was waiting for him that day when he was greeted sincerely by the schoolchildren and teachers as he was about to leave the site for the camp. All were waving hands and offering smiles of relief. The OC realized the spirit of the reply that the young EOD operator had offered him. When he returned to the camp, he held a celebration for the men to recognize their hard work.

Minefields and Danger Areas

Much of Sudan’s landmine-contamination problem comes specifically from the government’s fight with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Because the Second Sudanese Civil War lasted over 20 years and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement3 was only signed in 2005, the SPLA is not yet confident enough to share its minefield records with the United Nations Mine Action Office in Sudan. Furthermore, many of the minefields laid during the war were not recorded, and from 1999–2004, despite the fact that the country signed the Mine Ban Convention in December 1997, the government, the SPLA and other rebel groups have all been suspected of continuing to emplace anti-personnel mines.1 As a result, the general layout of South Sudan minefields is still unknown.

Minefields in South Sudan are mostly seen along the main roads connecting the capital, Juba, with bordering towns in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. No pattern of laying mines can be discerned from demining operations carried out in this area. In a few cases the mines are intentionally laid below 20 centimeters [8 inches] of soil (common practice is less than 13 centimeters [5 inches]) so as to impede detection.

Deminers saw mines that had been carried by the streams toward the villages, where local populations bathe and wash, maiming three deminers in the last three years. The danger areas are registered and demining operations are taken up only on the basis of reports from the locals, different aid organizations and peacekeepers working in suspected mined areas.

The major guerrilla battles were fought in the Juba, Kajo-Kajie, Kapoeta, Mafao, Rejaf, Rokon, Torit and Yei regions. The most commonly found types of UXO in South Sudan include mortar bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, various artillery rounds, wooden hand grenades and aerial bombs. Mine-risk education is needed to educate the local population about the dangers of UXO and ERW, as many villagers continue to use the mines as household items in their tukuls (local huts).

Achievements of Bangladesh Military Demining Company.
(Click image to enlarge)
Achievements of Bangladesh Military Demining Company.

Commonly Found Mines

Because the Sudan Armed Forces and SPLA used different sources to procure mines, both mines produced by NATO and ex-Warsaw Pact countries have been found in South Sudan. Bangladeshi deminers have primarily found the TM46 anti-tank mine and M14 anti- personnel mine, but they have also recovered and disposed of TM57 and PRB M3 anti-tank mines. In addition, they have disposed of Type 58, PMN, T72, PRB M35, TS 50, POMZ 2 and Type 69 anti-personnel mines as well as unknown types. On the other hand, booby traps and tripwires have not yet been found in South Sudan minefields.

Requirement of Military Deminers

Until the 1980s, mine clearance was only a sector for combat engineers of different armies. When civilian demining companies began to get involved, professionals such as police officers, dog handlers and construction plant operators of the corps of engineers began working as deminers. Military deminers have an advantage over private companies and nongovernmental organizations in that they already have experience working in hostile environments. As a result, they can help lay the groundwork for other de-mining and humanitarian agencies to work in areas of recent conflict. The military deminers mainly work as the peacekeeping force for U.N. missions in which peace enforcement is included in the mandated tasks.

The author (center) with the schoolchildren after his informal MRE presentation at Lobonok, South Sudan.
The author (center) with the schoolchildren after his informal MRE presentation at Lobonok, South Sudan.
Photo courtesy of Bangladesh Military Demining Company

Technical Survey and Manual Demining

Bangladeshi deminers began clearing Juba township and the surrounding neighborhood, the U.N. compound and the office areas for different ministries of South Sudan in March 2006. Until September 2009, the Bangladeshi Company engaged 137 sappers5 in humanitarian demining. By the end of March 2010, the deminers cleared approximately 2,628,858 square meters (650 acres) of land for safe use. In the process, the Bangladeshi deminers destroyed 6,358 anti-personnel mines and 399 anti-tank mines. Bangladeshi deminers worked in the following four minefields: Gudele with 13,137 square meters (three acres) cleared, Khor Ramla with 14,400 square meters (four acres) cleared, Mafao with 219,666 square meters (54 acres) cleared and Rajaf with 80,575 square meters (20 acres) cleared.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal

The EOD team’s job was a technical one, often conducting sensitive spot tasks in risky situations. Occasionally, this activity resulted in the detonation of UXO on site. It is up to the team leader to judge the situations and positions of the UXO. The team never performs any task without providing early warning to the local community. When a half-buried aerial bomb’s position in a grave demanded an in situ disposal, the team discussed the situation with the locals, hoping to receive permission to detonate the bomb. Unfortunately, the local population became agitated; therefore, the team postponed the task and started dialogues with different members of the society, and the bomb has not yet been detonated. Negotiations are continuing with the tribal leaders. The EOD team destroyed 31,523 pieces of UXO and is in the process of disposing over 14,000 kilograms (30,864 pounds) of outdated explosives received from the SPLA.

Battle Area Clearance

Bangladeshi military deminers have aided the local population through the clearance of battle areas. In particular, they cleared the Custom Market area, different ministry office areas, a 24,000 square meters (six-acre) dairy and poultry farm area near Mafao, a 41,000 square meters (10-acre) area near Jebel Kujoor, and numerous danger areas in Juba city. Through March 2010, the military deminers also cleared 1,408,800 square meters (348 acres) for the new United Nations Mission in Sudan headquarters.

Other Significant Contributions

In addition to demining, the military conducted the following activities:

Explosive-ordnance-disposal operators disposing of UXO stockpiles in Mugoro village.
Explosive-ordnance-disposal operators disposing of UXO stockpiles in Mugoro village.
Photo courtesy of Bangladeshi Military Demining Company

Challenges

Demining in South Sudan is an ongoing challenge. Weather, road conditions and the hostile attitude of some groups and tribes can restrict the deminers’ mobility to the remote minefields and danger areas. Unorthodox mine-laying patterns and interaction with local wildlife can pose additional stress to the deminers in their work.

Conclusion

Hidden mines and UXO are a continual threat to aid workers, deminers and the local population of South Sudan. Rough weather, rugged terrain, restrictions on movement in the area of operations, working far away from their families and even occasionally watching their comrades sustain injuries represent the working conditions for deminers. Despite working under tremendous physical and mental stress, the deminers rarely received recognition for risking their lives. However, their motivation is clear: the happy faces of the villagers upon the safe return of cleared land for cultivation or community use.J

Biography

Md Tarek Abdullah Major Md Tarek Abdullah is the Demining Contingent Commander for the Bangladesh Military Deminers. He also served the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea at the Mine Action Coordination Centre in Eritrea. Abdullah is a graduate of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in civil engineering and completed a diploma in landmines from the People’s Liberation Army Nanjing University of Science and Technology (China). He is also a freelance writer for U.N. news magazines.

 

Endnotes

  1. In the Bangladeshi military, the Commanding Officer is a Lieutenant Colonel who commands a Battalion; however, an officer below the rank of Lt. Col. commanding a unit is called Officer Commanding, not a Commanding Officer as in the U.S. military.
  2. “Sudan.” Landmine Monitor Report 2008. New York: International Campaign to Ban Landmines. http://www.the-monitor.org/index.php/publications/display?act=submit&pqs_year=2008&pqs_type
    =lm&pqs_report=sudan&pqs_section=%5c
    . Accessed 12 March 2010.
  3. “Sudan.” Mines Advisory Group. http://www.maginternational.org/where-we-work/where-mag-works/sudan/?keywords=sudan. Accessed 12 March 2010.
  4. Comprehensive Peace Agreement Between The Government of The Republic of The Sudan and The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Sudan People’s Liberation Army, 2005. http://unmis.unmissions.org/Portals/UNMIS/Documents/General/cpa-en.pdf. Accessed 31 March 2010.
  5. Any member of the Corps of Engineers is called a sapper.

Contact Information

Muhammad Tarek Abdullah
Major/ Officer Commanding
BANENGR-8 (Demining)
United Nations Mission in Sudan
Juba / South Sudan
Cell: +249 92 240 2362 (Sudan)
+880 17 1132 7541 (Bangladesh)
E-mail: tarektopu@gmail.com, unmis-bandemining-juba@un.org