KABOOM! The exhilarating trademark sound of UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) can, exceptionally, be present in their activities only through its conspicuous and curious absence, but not in any text about UNMAS. Talking about the flagship day of deminers, the International Mine Awareness Day, without it would, in some quarters, be tantamount to sacrilege.
With the formalities out of the way, listen to the mantra-like chanting at Juba’s Palm Africa Hotel, where the day was celebrated in a youth- and school-centred manner.
“Landmines are bad, landmines can kill, landmines are dangerous. Mine Action Cannot Wait.”
These powerful words, were, again and again, bouncing softly between the walls as they were pronounced by students from three primary schools in the capital. They cannot, in fact, be repeated often enough, and here is why:
“In case a football falls in a nearby field which contains a UXO [unexploded ordnance] and if children go to collect it, it may explode and injure or kill them. For this reason, there should be a solution in place for the removal of UXOs and landmines, and it is also why mine action cannot wait,” said Khamisa Rizik, a student and peer educator at JCC Model Primary School.
She spoke as she described the winning piece of art submitted to the drawing competition organized by the demining organization, an integral part of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. In it, we see a family, having been internally displaced by violent conflict, returning to their home, understandably oblivious of the unseen, explosive enemies lurking just beneath them. Luckily enough, they all seem to survive.
Not everyone in South Sudan has been dealt that fortunate fate. After decades of armed conflict, the world’s youngest nation is littered with unexploded remnants of war, of all kinds. With both parties to the conflict having hidden landmines in strategic or sometimes seemingly random places, clearing all land of these hazards turned into an ongoing, herculean task.
“I have so many sad experiences with landmines, because they are dangerous. We all participated in planting them then, but now we have lived to regret what we did,” said Jurkuch Barach Jurkuch, a war veteran and Chairperson of the National Mine Action Authority in the country.
Mr. Jurkuch’s organization has been clearing landmines since 1997. Together with UNMAS, who joined their efforts in 2004, they have liberated millions of square metres of land, making it possible for thousands and thousands of children to go to school, farmers to cultivate their crops, and humanitarians and peacekeepers alike to reach the communities most in need of assistance.
The Chairperson took a keen interest in the drawings and paintings on display, asking questions about them and also answering the many inquisitive queries of the students.
“This picture shows a farmer digging in a garden, not knowing that it is full of landmines, which are a danger to his health,” explained one student, who did not miss the opportunity to repeat the global theme of this year’s International Mine Awareness Day: Mine action cannot wait.
“That is true, it cannot,” replied Mr. Jurkuch. “Not if we want children to go to school without risking their lives, land to be farmed and vital goods to be transported along roads that are safe.”
Having said that, he struck a more optimistic chord, describing the “great strides” having been made by the UNMISS mine action component to rid the country of silent, yet lethal underground killers.
And yet, more than 25 years of demining in South Sudan is proof that it is, by necessity, a slow-going, but vital activity. Alas, it is also an expensive one.
“The more we clear, the more unexploded remnants of war we find. It means that we need to keep doing what we do, but we need more support to finish the task. Demining needs funding, it is that simple,” said UNMAS Chief Fran O’Grady, well aware of the battled involved in securing the necessary resources.
“In a global environment where competing priorities often see the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan being overlooked, it is essential that we continue to collectively advocate for life-saving humanitarian assistance, of which mine action is a key component,” he affirmed.
At the Juba event, Mr. O’Grady was able to add a groovy little something to his advocacy toolbox. It was, moreover, something fully in line with the youthful energy, singing, dancing, poetry and other artistic expressions being showcased on the day: “Mine Action Cannot Wait”, a song composed and performed by local musician Mambo Alex.
To make matters even more fabulous, Mambo Alex is not your average artist, but a deminer and community liaison officer by day.
As the theme song was performed, wild and joyous dancing duly ensued. For all we know, there is still much rejoicing.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).