1 As the powerful barges manned by the Bangladesh Marine Force Unit deployed to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) carefully make their way through the overflowing waters of the White Nile, the air fills with anticipation .
2 The thick, lush vegetation characteristic of the Sudd, one of the world’s largest wetlands, flanks both sides of the river and provides shelter for birds and the rare crocodile.
3 A peacekeeping team travels to the remote Channel in Pigi County, an area that can only be reached via water routes from Malakal in Upper Nile State.
4 Dark clouds creep across the sky and the ongoing drizzle soon turns into a deluge.
5 On one of the boats is Sara Beysolow Nyanti, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for South Sudan.
6 Ms. Beysolow is also the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for this young nation, and this is a special trip for her.
8 Because she is going to meet communities that, just a few months ago, lived in an active minefield.
9 “When the plight of people moving into this minefield alive was first brought to my attention, the immediate question in my head at the time was why would anyone choose to do that?” asks Fran O’ Grady, Head of Mine Action, South Sudan.
10 “The answer is: nobody would, but the communities felt they had no choice.”
11 Climate change has caused some of the heaviest rainfall and flooding in South Sudan in nearly a century.
12 The contours of the Nile and the swamps that surround it have changed dramatically, leading communities to desperately seek dry land.
13 Some 1,500 people, in an attempt to survive, moved into an area plagued by 25 antipersonnel mines, a grim legacy of previous conflicts.
15 It was not an easy task.
16 The first obstacle they faced was the hard ground.
17 Manual demining could not be done and they had to find a special machine.
18 The second: racing against time to complete his life-saving job before torrential downpours made the place impossible to reach!
19 “We had a tiny window of opportunity because the rains were only a few weeks away,” recalls Mr. O’Grady.
20 “The nearest machine was a long boat ride away.
21 We had to acquire that machine; fix it up; find a barge to take her up the river to Canal before it started to rain; and put together a team to do the actual clearing,” he reveals.
22 “It was a gamble, but I am very happy to say that it worked and we managed to clear the entire area of antipersonnel mines,” she adds.
24 Songs, dances and sincere conversations were the order of the day.
25 “There is so much life here,” says the UNMISS deputy chief.
26 “We are responsible for 75 per cent of demining activities in South Sudan and this is a stellar example.
27 Before UNMAS cleared this land there were only 1,500 people in Canal and now we have about 10,000 community members living here.
28 We heard children laughing and playing.
29 Every step people take is safe and the ground they live on is safe.
30 This is a great achievement in terms of ensuring access to humanitarian services and development programming.
31 Ms Beysolow acknowledges that much remains to be done.
32 Walking in wellies, a raincoat and an umbrella, she is unaware of the mud under her feet and focuses on the community leaders, women and children, while she too participates in some of the jubilation that the arrival has occasioned.
34 She takes her stories to heart and listens intently as the rain beats down.
35 Inclement weather has become a way of life here and members of the community flock to narrate their troubles: snakes drive them from their homes; they need clean water and health care, and their children lack adequate schools.
36 But it is the plight of women that hits the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator hard.
37 “No matter what title or position I have, I am first and foremost an African woman.
38 Listening to the issues facing women in this community is difficult for me.
39 The fact that a woman in 2022 must leave her home and find another place to live when she is seven months pregnant or reconcile with a 50-50 chance of dying because she will not have access to a hospital to deliver her baby safe way.
40 —That’s painful.
41 It is painful to hear snakes and people fighting for the same space; that people are driven out of their homes at night when snakes enter due to floods,” says Ms. Nyanti passionately.
42 Despite these persistent challenges, the people of Canal have a deep appreciation in their hearts for the efforts made by UNMAS.
43 Sarah, a women’s representative (and namesake of DSRSG Nyanti) says demining activities have greatly improved the quality of life for communities in Canal.
44 “Before UNMAS helped us, we were always afraid of what was under the ground.
45 We were afraid that our children would take something dangerous and be injured or killed.
46 Now, we can live without apprehension; we can dig the earth to build ourselves tukuls (mud huts) that give us shelter from the rain and our children can play freely”, she reveals with a smile.
47 Significantly, despite their daily hardships, Canal communities live in peace.
49 Thanks to UNMAS and its committed deminers, hope, once scarce, has found new life in Canal.
50 With the additional help of international friends, the people here could possibly get back on their feet and rebuild their lives.
51 “The Canal people themselves have chosen to clear their path to peace,” says DSRSG Nyanti.
52 “This is really an important step.
53 When there is peace, when the ground they live on is safe and when they have worked hard to reconcile their differences, we as the UN family can come together to get more support for them.”