A new demining bulldozer is speeding up mine clearance in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, where fighting between separatists and government forces has been ongoing since 1982.
Nearly 800 people have been killed or injured by mines in Casamance since 1988, according to Mamady Gassama of the Senegalese Association of Landmine Victims (ASVM). In 2008, 60,000 people fled their homes and farms due to the threat of mines.
The conflict with the Mouvement des Forces Democratiques de la Casamance (MFDC) peaked in the mid-1990s, but despite a peace accord signed in 2004, clashes continue. The separatists are blamed for planting the landmines.
International NGO Handicap International (HI) began the first humanitarian demining program in the region in 2008, operating under Senegal's National Anti-Mine Action Centre (CNAMS) which determines the areas to be demined. Still the only NGO involved in demining in Senegal, HI began work with teams of deminers trained in manual demining - a slow process that involves cutting away the undergrowth, checking the ground with a metal detector and carefully digging out mines as they are located.
But in September 2011 a Digger D-3 was introduced in response to the discovery of PRB M35 mines - plastic-cased anti-personnel (AP) mines, which are impossible to find with a metal detector. The 10-ton, US$440,000 machine was purchased with funds provided by the UN Development Program and the City of Geneva.
In good conditions the bulldozer can cover 2,000 square meters a day, while a deminer working manually could cover just 10, according to Charles Coly, team leader of the HI mechanical demining team. It can be equipped with a flail, tiller or standard Caterpillar tools.
"In the last week [using the Digger D-3] we've done the [same amount of] work as over the past six months," said Jean-François Lepetit, chief of mission for HI's Senegal demining program.
Boost for livelihoods
On one of HI's current demining sites, due for completion on 20 October, a team is clearing the path from Etomé to Kassoulou, two villages a few kilometers from the Casamance capital, Ziguinchor. The area was determined to be unsafe after the discovery of two mines by locals, and since demining began in June two additional AP mines, two anti-tank (AT) mines and a rocket have been uncovered.
"The path is the only way the fields and plantations can be reached, so people have to use it," said Adrien Ngom, team leader of the manual demining team working in Etomé.
When landmines were first found in the area many people left, abandoning their fields, said Prospere Tendeng, Etomé's village chief. But now the path is being demined, he said, most people have returned. "People are confident to use the path; people can go to their fields safely."
Some locals stayed on to work, despite the risks. Eric Tendeng works burning wood to make charcoal next to the demined path in Etomé, on land which is still deemed at risk of landmines but not yet listed as a site to be demined. "I know there are mines and unexploded ordnance in the area…I'm afraid, but I can't do anything about it. I need to work and to live in my village," he told IRIN.
On 10 August - before the introduction of the bulldozer - just over 130,000 square meters had been cleared in Casamance, across eight villages, according to HI program chief Lepetit. Nearly 18,000 people currently live on or regularly use this land.
Despite gains in efficiency made by the Digger D-3, Lepetit said it is hard to anticipate how long it will take for Casamance to become mine-free as land affected by mines is not all mapped and suspicious areas are still being discovered.
There are also limitations to where the machine can be used as it can be damaged by AT mines or by large concentrations of metal in the ground. Lepetit said HI was hoping to find funding for demining dogs which would be ideal for reaching where the bulldozer cannot go. "In the same way the machine dramatically improved productivity in one step, dogs could do the same again. There is no reason to let people wait."
Day in the life of a Casamance deminer
Growing up in Ziguinchor, Maïbata Sane has seen the damage landmines can cause. One of her neighbors was killed driving over an anti-tank mine, and a school friend was injured by an anti-personnel mine. When she was 15 she saw a car blown up by an anti-tank mine.
Now 25, Maïbata works with NGO Handicap International's humanitarian demining program - removing landmines from the ground, both manually and mechanically. She says she took on the job because she "wanted to do something for the country and to free the land".
6.30 a.m.: Arrives at the Handicap office in Ziguinchor to prepare equipment for the day.
7 a.m.: The deminers, all Casamance locals, have a briefing, share information about the day before and discuss plans for the day.
7.15 a.m.: Maïbata's team (one of three) heads for an area around Sindone village, a 40 minute drive from Ziguinchor. Accompanying the demining team is a full-time medic and a driver; there have been no accidents so far, but everyone is prepared for an emergency.
8 a.m.: After another briefing, Maïbata and her colleagues don heavy blue safety gear and helmets. The team uses the Digger D-3 mechanical deminer, which is operated from behind a portable safety shield. All team members had two months training on its use and maintenance. Where the machine cannot be used Maïbata demines manually, using basic tools such as a metal detector and trowel. Team members take a break every hour to help maintain their concentration.
4.30 p.m.: Maïbata arrives home. She says she has never felt frightened. "It's my decision to do this job."
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