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SENEGAL: One landmine gone, hectares of farmland gained

KAGUIT, 11 September 2009 (IRIN) - Three women walk through lush forest with bowls of rice plants on their heads. It is a spectacular scene in the verdant Casamance region of southern Senegal, but the beauty is marred by red and white-striped warning tape demarcating areas where a team is scanning the land for deadly mines.

But the warning tape and the signs reading “Danger, mines!” in French and Wolof signify the work underway to clear the land of mines and return it to the people, most of whom live off farming.

One farmer told IRIN: “Landmines compromise our existence”.

Each weekday at dawn 10 Senegalese men and women, trained by the NGO Handicap International, head to villages in Casamance – always accompanied by two paramedics – and meticulously search the ground for landmines.

Patrick Hirard, head of operations for Handicap’s demining programme, said the removal of one mine has an immense impact. “It is just one mine, but that frees up thousands of square metres of land for entire communities.”

Since February 2008 Handicap International, for now the only organization carrying out humanitarian demining in the region, has cleared more than 72,000sqm of land and neutralized 99 mines on-site, according to head of mission Camille Aubourg. Humanitarian demining – as opposed to military demining – is performed by civilians and focuses on areas where mines have a heavy impact on the local population.

Landmines are part of the fallout of the 27-year conflict in Casamance, a region between The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau where instability reigns despite a 2004 peace accord between the government and separatist rebels. Since the height of fighting in the mid-1990s at least 748 people have been injured or killed by landmines, according to the National Anti-Mine Action Centre (CNAMS). But existing data might not reflect the true number of victims, according to a UN report on landmine projects worldwide.

A 2005-06 study led in part by the UN Development Programme – the latest such assessment – showed that of 251 localities investigated, 93 were contaminated by mines and/or unexploded ordnance. Experts say further studies are needed as some areas were inaccessible at the time.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines on 9 September called on African Union members to step up efforts to rid the continent of mines and assist victims. Senegal, a signatory to the Mine Ban Treaty, recently received a seven-year extension – to March 2016 – for the destruction of all antipersonnel landmines.

Funding crunch

Handicap, other aid agencies and CNAMS are seeking funds to continue clearing mines, to run awareness and education campaigns and to provide assistance to people injured by mines.

To date CNAMS has received none of the US$5.1 million budgeted for its 2009 projects, according to Seyni Diop, CNAMS head of education and victim assistance.

Handicap might have to put the demining operation on hold from 1 October unless new funds come in, Aubourg told IRIN. Aside from a contribution from Britain for July-August, since May Handicap has run the operation with its own funds. “It is becoming increasingly difficult,” she said.

Donors that have contributed to Handicap’s operations to date are Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Rotary Clubs of Senegal and the United States, along with the Senegalese government.

Handicap’s Aubourg said a lack of funding would foil important gains made to date. “We now have a true national expertise in humanitarian demining,” she said.

Pending funding, CNAMS hopes to recruit more operators in order to accelerate demining, Diop told IRIN.

Accelerating the removal of mines would be a relief to Casamance residents.

The Handicap team is currently working in Kaguit, a village 30km southwest of the main city Ziguinchor. Kaguit has been hit hard by fighting, mines – with 43 people killed or injured by the weapons – and in recent years pillaging and cattle raids by armed groups. Deminers’ presence is boosting people’s confidence, resident Moustapha Signaté told IRIN.

“Because of the nearby presence of the Senegalese army and the work of the demining team, we have a bit of courage to come back,” said Signaté, who fled Kaguit with his family in 1997 and for the past three years has returned to work the land during the planting season. He hopes to resettle in Kaguit for good.

“Without these two factors it is difficult for us to return, to settle here and work in peace,” he told IRIN. “Before the demining, people were afraid to move anywhere. We lost so many people of Kaguit to mines.”

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Themes: (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs

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Copyright © IRIN 2009
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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