The women who clear Sudan’s minefields

Jamba Besta had planned to be a secretary, hoping to find work in an office as her homeland of South Sudan emerged out of a 22-year long civil war.

Instead, the pregnant mother heads an all-female team of de-miners, removing dangerous explosives from former battlefields.

"I never thought I would be doing this," says Ms Besta, welcoming her six-woman team back from the danger zone they are clearing.

Many people have died or had their legs shot off because of a mine

Tabu Monica Festo
Mine clearer
"But it shows those people who think that women can’t do jobs like this that they are wrong."

The team’s members say they work better as an all-women team – supporting each other against often critical comments that de-mining is work only for a man.

"We live and work away from home all as one team, so it is good we are all women together," she says.

Sudan’s north-south war – fought over ideology, religion, ethnicity and oil – ended more than four years ago.

Some two million people died in the war, and its bitter legacy of landmines and unexploded ordnance continues to kill and wound.

Warning signs

In Bungu, where Jama and her Sudanese team working for Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) are clearing mines, the community want to rebuild a school abandoned during the war.

The women do a great job – and we don’t have problems of fighting or drinking

Kjell Ivar Breili
Norwegian People’s Aid
The small settlement, some 30 miles from the southern capital Juba, was a northern government outpost on a key rebel supply line from neighbouring Uganda.

Soldiers ringed the outpost with mines against the surrounding southern guerrilla forces, while unexploded ordnance is left from the battles between the two sides.

"It will take a long time to clear," says de-miner Tabu Monica Festo, waving at the waist high grass and tangled bushes.

"We don’t know where there may be something hidden."

Only a narrow passage has so far been cleared through the ruins of the old school, a jumbled pile of rocks covered in thick shrubs.

The path is clearly marked with warning sticks tipped with red, to show the rest remains unsafe.

"We have to be very careful to check all the ground is clear," Ms Festo added, resuming her slow sweeping of the ground with a metal detector.

A solid squeaking sound indicates hidden metal – and the risk of a mine or unexploded bomb.

Some were designed to maim people, others to take out an armoured tank.

"It’s a job that is important to do – many people have died or had their legs shot off because of a mine," Ms Festo adds.

Painstaking work

Similar all-women teams work elsewhere in the world, including Kosovo and Cambodia.

Mine clearance is arduous and the teams must be alert for booby traps
But Kjell Ivar Breili, NPA’s programme manager, says this is the first such team to be used in Sudan.

Mr Breili said NPA’s two female teams have recently beaten several of the six male teams in terms of the numbers of mines cleared.

"The women do a great job – and we don’t have problems of fighting or drinking," he said.

Each de-miner creeps painstakingly forward down thin alleys, moving the safety line forward only once every section has been checked.

It is tough work in baking sun, and the plastic face-shields they wear inside the minefield mean that it is not possible to drink water during each 45-minute shift.

However, the women must pour water on to the hard-baked soil to soften the earth and allow the gentle probing of suspect objects.

Critics ‘are jealous’

One cleared passage stops just short of a tall mango tree, whose cool shade looks an inviting place to rest.

Their children sometimes join the women during breaks
But the women say such spots are especially risky – booby-trapped simply because they are likely places for people to go.

"The soldiers are believed to have buried mines all around here," said Fazia Annet, dressed in a heavy protective bomb blast jacket.

"But we have to check all the ground of course, because there could be danger anywhere."

Later, in the tent-camp a short distance outside the minefield, the women eat lunch before relaxing for a break in the shade.

One mother plays with their daughter, who is looked after in the camp while the women are at work.

But the team leader, currently assigned to logistical duties during the later stages of her pregnancy and for the following nine months, is clear that women can do the job just as well as men.

"Some say it is dangerous for a woman, but they are jealous because we are doing the same job as the men," said Ms Besta, with a laugh.

"What is dangerous is leaving mines hidden in the ground."

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