As South Sudan approaches the first anniversary since independence, the country faces profound challenges from landmines and unexploded munitions, which remain a tragic legacy of decades of conflict. On the front lines of this new struggle against these hidden hazards are the dedicated men and women of the South Sudan Integrated Mine Action Service (SIMAS).
I recently visited South Sudan to meet the organization's brave and dedicated staff, and I saw firsthand how U.S. support for conventional weapons destruction is making a difference in the world's newest nation.
Landmines and unexploded ordnance inhibit development, disrupt markets and production, prevent the delivery of goods and services, and generally obstruct reconstruction and stabilization efforts. By removing these deadly hazards, we can encourage the socio-economic development needed to further the larger goal of promoting stability and security. Under the Conventional Weapons Destruction Program -- a partnership among the State Department, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- the United States has invested approximately $1.9 billion in 81 countries toward clearance operations, education and outreach to prevent injuries, and victims' assistance programs.
SIMAS was founded locally back in 1999 to respond to the extensive contamination of Greater Equatoria, Bahr El Gazal, Upper Nile, and the Nuba Mountains with what we call "explosive remnants of war,” (ERW) such as buried landmines, unexploded mortars and bombs, as well as abandoned artillery shells and ammunition. SIMAS remains the only indigenous, internationally-accredited, mine action non-governmental organization operating in South Sudan.
"The work our teams do is risky," SIMAS Director Jonas Anuar told me. "What we need is internal support from the government [of South Sudan] as well as external support from our donor communities to pursue this noble task."
Beginning in 2004, SIMAS partnered with Swiss Foundation for Demining, which helped with both technical training for clearance operations as well as program management training to provide essential know-how to keep the organization running. In 2008, the United States continued this initiative, investing $1.9 million to date in the South Sudan effort. With PM/WRA support, SIMAS has cleared nearly 135,000 square meters of land, safely disposing of tens of thousands of explosives, and preventing countless injuries or deaths.
My travelling partner, PM/WRA colleague and South Sudan Program Manager Emma Atkinson, has watched SIMAS grow over the years in annual visits. Emma said that "this is a successful and positive example of capacity development in South Sudan and PM/WRA is proud to partner with such an outstanding South Sudanese organization."
During the visit, Emma and I observed a manual clearance team operating in the village of Loggo, which is about 20 km outside of South Sudan's capital, Juba. People began to return to Loggo after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 only to make the deadly discovery that the community was rebuilding on top of a minefield. SIMAS was called in by South Sudan authorities.
"The removal of landmines and ERW in the areas we have cleared has been of great importance to the resident communities near the contaminated areas, returnees, government agencies and NGOs undertaking developmental activities in the community, as well as business people who are interested in investing in the country," Loggo demining Team Leader Arike Charles told me as we donned heavy protective gear one sweltering afternoon, "The cleared areas have enabled safe settlement and re-settlement, increased agricultural and other livelihoods activities."
In all, the team had gathered eight mortars totalling 25 kg that day, which they disposed of by wiring them carefully for a planned detonation. When ready, they handed me the small box with the detonation button, allowing me to share in their mission as they work for a safer future for the people of South Sudan.
As I stood with SIMAS team members in the extreme heat wearing heavy personal protective equipment, I was amazed and humbled by the deminers who painstakingly detect and remove landmines for the benefit of neighboring communities and proud to know that funding from the United States Department of State contributed to the security of the area.