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Unexploded munitions a threat in Darfur

31 January 2014, 13:01

El Fasher - From aircraft bombs to cluster munitions and grenades, the Ordnance Disposal Office of the international peacekeeping force in Sudan's war-torn Darfur has found and destroyed them all.

But for every piece of unexploded weaponry the ODO eliminates, worsening fighting means that other munitions will take their place, posing a threat to farmers and peacekeepers alike.

"Those areas where we assess this year, for example, as free, next year or next month could be contaminated again because of some conflict," says Steven Harrop, a British Royal Air Force veteran who is a safety adviser to the 30-member ODO.

That means Darfuris returning to their fields to sow their crops can "never be 100% confident" weapons are not lying dormant in the soil ready to explode, Harrop said in an interview at the headquarters of Unamid, the African Union-UN Mission in Darfur.

He and other members of the UN Mine Action Service are attached to Unamid supporting its mandate to protect civilians in Darfur, a region about the size of France which has been devastated by 11 years of war.

The ODO's insights provide a rare window into the nature of the conflict in Darfur, to which foreign journalists are denied direct access by Sudanese authorities.

Clashes between ethnic minority rebels and the army continued in 2013 but worsening inter-communal fighting, largely between rival Arab tribal militias, meant that even more guns were fired.

Harrop and his colleague, Emeka Nwadike, say the increased number of weapons they disposed of last year reflects the intensified conflict, but also a change in the way their teams work.

Heavy ordinance

The figures for UXO (unexploded ordnance) destroyed had been fairly steady, with 363 in the 2012-13 year, Harrop said.

Between June and December last year ODO was busier, eliminating 400 UXO, including 120 in December alone.

"We're not really finding... heavy ordnance from tanks or artillery", Harrop says.

"A lot of it is items you would expect from ground fighting," - hand grenades, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades - "which any group could be using".

There have also been aerial weapons, including rockets and air-dropped bombs of 250kg.

Harrop said they last found an unexploded aerial bomb in October.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2005 demanding that Sudan cease offensive military flights in Darfur.

Within the last few months, ODO destroyed a rarer find, cluster munitions.

"They were still inside their container and spilled out," Harrop said.

Launched from the ground or dropped from the air, cluster bombs split open before impact to scatter multiple bomblets over a wide area.

Eighty-four states have signed and ratified the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions which bans the weapons, but Sudan is among the non-signatories.

'We know there's more ordnance out there'

Harrop, who served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in Iraq, said it is difficult to know how much of the weaponry fired in Sudan fails to detonate.

"In general, the industry norm for munitions is a 10 percent failure rate," he said.

That poses a threat to civilians.

"It hinders, obviously, them using certain parts of their land and therefore they can't grow their crops and earn any money," he said.

For the thousands of members of Unamid, one of the world's largest peacekeeping missions, UXO is "a threat to their movements" as they try to protect the civilians.

One person was killed and one wounded in November, in the most recent two blasts of leftover ordnance.

That brought to 141 the number of reported explosions that have killed 83 people and injured 214 since 2005.

"We have seen a bit of growth in the number of incidents," Nwadike says, but this reflects an improved reporting rate rather than more accidents.

ODO, with a budget of about $8m a year, has worked with Sudan's union of disabled people, victims' assistance groups and Unamid police to train people on reporting UXO.

"We know there's more UXO out there than we're destroying, but it's finding it is the hardest thing," Harrop says.

"And unless people, the local population, report it to us, it's difficult for us to target a particular area."

Unamid escorts

ODO tries to send survey teams to areas where fighting has recently occurred. They spend three or four weeks interviewing residents about the possible presence of UXO, and then they try to find it.

They also respond to accidents, checking whether any other ordnance remains in the area.

The surveying and destruction of UXO is done by The Development Initiative (TDI), an international contractor with six teams of Sudanese and foreign experts in Darfur.

The teams had been travelling with Unamid escorts but the peacekeepers were not always available because of other duties.

Since July, Sudanese soldiers and police have accompanied TDI teams "which has meant we've had far better access", contributing to the higher volume of UXO destroyed, Harrop said.

"We're making headway, slowly, but as long as the conflict goes on, then the UXO will remain."



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