The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is located deep in the heart of Africa. Since 1996, the DRC has experienced two wars that have left behind thousands of landmines, unexploded bombs, mortars, and other explosive remnants of war. Now, as relative peace has emerged in many provinces, families who were forced to flee during the wars are returning to their homes, but remain at serious risk of death or injury from these hidden hazards. I recently returned from Kisangani, DRC, where I saw first-hand how U.S.-supported Conventional Weapons Destruction efforts are saving lives and setting the stage for peace and security.
Kisangani is the furthest navigable point upstream on the Congo River and is about 1,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. It is the third largest city in the DRC, and is very far removed from Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. Few travelers make it here; the beautiful, diverse terrain includes the dense vegetation typical of the north-eastern part of Congo which can make for very difficult travel.
In Kisangani, I met with one of our NGO partners, DanChurchAid (DCA). With headquarters in Denmark, DCA has been working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with U.S. support for more than 10 years to train local staff, clear explosive hazards and prevent injuries through community programs to warn area residents of potential dangers. As displaced families return to their homes, they are finding that landmines and other explosive hazards limit their access to farmland to grow cassava, maize, and peanuts; hunting and fishing areas; water collection points; and roads to neighbouring villages. Clearing explosive hazards not only removes obstructions to the immediate human needs associated with the return of refugees and displaced populations, but also to long-term socioeconomic development, basic food security, and access to health facilities, schools and infrastructure, such as roads and bridges.
While in the area, I met with local authorities, including the village chief, director of the water distribution company and airport representatives. All have a stake in the clearance of the fields, allowing them to expand their water access points and safe and secure airport operations. Villages freed from landmines allow children to play safely and their families to rebuild their communities.
During our visit, we discussed a project addressing the presence of explosive hazards near the village of Avokoko. This site, hosting the primary water supply and reserve for the Kisangani Airport and surrounding villages, had been left unused by the communities and local authorities alike since the 1990s due to risks from unexploded munitions, which prevented access to water for both local communities and the airport itself. It is expected that the clearance of the Avokoko minefield (60,000 m2) will benefit 3,866 inhabitants (including 3,654 persons from surrounding villages and 212 persons working at the airport), not counting the staff of the nearby UN Peacekeeping bases. In addition, the airport welcomes about 292,000 travelers a year (800 persons per day) who can be considered as indirect beneficiaries.
Since October 2013, DCA has successfully implemented Conventional Weapons Destruction projects in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State. Thanks to this collaboration, more than 185,000 square meters have been cleared or released back to the communities for productive use. DCA has also destroyed more than 3,700 mines and pieces of explosive remnants of war, benefiting 144,000 villagers, and conducted 33 risk education and outreach sessions for 22,000 beneficiaries.
Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.