In December 2015, Handicap International re-launched demining operations in Casamance, Senegal, the region at the center of a 33-year-long conflict between the Senegalese army and an armed independence group. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of State. Handicap International deminers aim to clear 55,000 square meters of around three villages by August. Between 2007 and 2012, Handicap International contributed to the clearance of 1,800,000 square meters of land. Authorities estimate that 480,000 square meters of land in Casamance are still polluted with landmines and other explosive remnants of war.
“During this long conflict, which began in 1982, mines were used erratically, and, at times, without any apparent logic,” says Aziz Sy, head of Handicap International’s mine-clearing operations in Senegal. “So landmines could be anywhere.”
To start, the Handicap International team, including 14 deminers and support staff, and two demining dogs, is opening up paths and farmland around the village of Diagnon. Many of the village's 500 inhabitants have not dared to walk on this land for more than a decade.
“In order to survive, locals need to farm fields they abandoned when they fled their villages because of the conflict,” says Charles Coly, head of Handicap International’s mine-clearing team. “Now they have returned, but they are still afraid to venture into these fields.”
These mine-clearing operations will also clear paths between villages and the region’s main road, giving isolated communities better access to the large markets. Farmers will be able to sell their crops and increase their income.
Handicap International’s demining dogs, Katja and Rex, and their handler, Jonathan Matambo, play a key role in clearance efforts. “Dogs are faster and more efficient mine detectors than human deminers with metal detectors,” says Aziz. “They are also highly valuable because they can detect mines that are not made of metal, like the PRBM 35 mine, which we often come across.”
If demining proceeds as expected, the dogs and human deminers will have cleared enough land to allow 60,000 people to live in safety.