Picking up the Remnants of war

This photo essay was submitted by Pete Muller

After more than twenty years of armed conflict, the fertile hills of northern Uganda remain littered with the explosive remnants of war. In cooperation with the Danish Demining Group and the Uganda Mine Action Centre, I documented the clearance of landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) throughout this embattled region. At present, UMAC mine clearance teams are deployed in highly contaminated, mountainous areas along the border with South Sudan.

In addition to large-scale mine clearance operations in the far north, UMAC Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) teams continue to clear UXO from the battlegrounds of northern Uganda. As millions of internally displaced persons return to their native lands, reports of unexploded grenades, RPGs, air-dropped bombs and other hazardous items pour in at alarming rates. UXO are highly unpredictable and pose considerable risk to all who encounter them. Such items are often located in extremely remote areas, requiring EOD technicians to brave heat and unforgiving terrain to reach them.

I have little envy for those tasked with clearing these deadly items. In oppressive heat, these committed men and women work on their hands and knees for long hours to make grounds safe for displaced Ugandans to return home. Mine clearance work is painstaking and requires intense concentration. Any lapse in focus can result in life-threatening accidents. De-miners may go hours, even days, without hitting a single mine. It is in such periods that maintaining concentration is essential, and exceptionally difficult.

I was shocked to see how tedious the process is. In northern Uganda, which has relatively low levels of mine and UXO contamination compared to Iraq, Afghanistan and Columbia, the grounds will remain hazardous for several years. Each EOD team can safely reach and clear one or two UXO per day, of which thousands are scattered about the region. Mine clearance moves at an even slower pace. In ideal conditions, each de-miner can clear approximately ten square meters per day, and even less with rugged terrain and tropical rains. Additionally, the grounds are highly contaminated with scrap metal and bullet cases, each of which gives a detector reading and must be approached as potentially lethal.

What strikes me most is the extraordinary disparity between how long it takes to contaminate ground versus how long it takes to clear it. A unit of fifty men can put down thousands of rounds, fire hundreds of mortars and RPGs and lay dozens of mines within a period of 24 hours. If they continue at such a pace for one month, it might take eight months to address the mess they made. Considering the massive scale of armed conflict in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya, the implications are daunting.

Pete Muller
Danish Demining Group
Uganda Mine Action Centre

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