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The ground beneath their feet

O. Hannington and Reem Abbas Shawkat
Tahani Mohamed sells tea in Khartoum and wants to go home. Alex Remo digs for mines in Yei and wants to study. A story of two strangers hoping for a new start.
1.04.2014  |  Khartoum | yei
تهاني محمد، تبيع الشاي في الخرطوم، بعيدا عن منزلها، وأليكس رومو، نازع الألغام، مع طفلته.
تهاني محمد، تبيع الشاي في الخرطوم، بعيدا عن منزلها، وأليكس رومو، نازع الألغام، مع طفلته.

Tahani Mohamed sits dishing out cinnamon flavoured tea, hot hibiscus and coffee to businessmen who spend their days dealing cars under the hot sun of the Sudanese capital.


06:00 AM: Alex Remo starts his working day, digging for land mines buried in South Sudan.


Tea selling is one of Tahani’s new jobs. She also guards a construction site and cares for her six children alone. Two years ago she lived a different life, running a busy market restaurant in South Kordofan. But when planes came roaring overhead and bombs exploded in neighbouring settlements Tahani fled with her children. They joined thousands of displaced people who are trying to make ends meet in Khartoum.


Alex is a deminer, a job few envy. Dressed in heavy protective gear and a mask, the 30 year-old works from dawn to dusk using his hands or a small shovel to locate land mines, relics of his country’s decades of civil war.

Beneath scorching sun or heavy rain, Alex and his 16 colleagues unearth mines for The Development Initiative (TDI). The United Nations-funded organisation sends teams across the country, removing hidden explosives which kill hundreds of people every year and handicap many more.

Their evil legacy lives on: Locals cannot grow crops, children cannot attend school and people cannot live in their homes. “As long as explosives like these are still buried, our country remains unsafe,” Alex says.


She no longer fears for her life but Tahani faces daily hardship. “I have lost weight and I don’t feel like myself,” she says. “My children are always telling me to take them home, we don’t feel comfortable in Khartoum.”


Alex and his colleagues spend four-month stints in contaminated sites across the country, places where vehicles cannot travel for fear of sparking an explosion.


Tahani’s homeland is still under fire. The exodus continues: Every day up to 200 people flee South Kordofan and travel to Yida refugee camp in South Sudan. Her husband remains on their farm, protecting their land and cattle, his children’s future inheritance. It is a familiar story: His wife is one among more than 2.5 million internally displaced people in Sudan.


Alex digs up mines, unexploded ordnance and caches of munitions buried in soft fertile soils and rocky terrain. The deminers have their work cut out: The UK-based Mines Advisory Group estimates that the country has 704 recorded hazardous areas. More than 80 percent of these are in Greater Equatoria and Jonglei. “Sometimes we only get to know how dangerous a place is after an accident has happened,” he says.


“Life in Khartoum is difficult, you work so hard. We barely make it,” says Tahani who was pregnant when she relocated with her children aged 11, 8, 5, 3 and 2.


Alex says concentration and strength are life-saving traits for the young deminers. The work is arduous: He carries explosives weighing up to 20 kilos across unknown terrain for hours.

“Carrying a heavy load of explosives for a long distance is not good. You could become tired and trip. And if you drop or hit it on something it could explode and you get killed,” says Alex, who has been doing the job for three years.

He sees his family for around a fortnight after every four-month assignment.


Tahani stayed at home during the decades of civil war. “My area was not affected, we had a peaceful life, we heard stories about people suffering from the violence further down in the Nuba Mountains, but this time it was different, war was closer to home,” she says.

Clashes between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N) following controversial governorship elections left Tahani near the eye of the storm.

An influx of frightened, homeless people arrived in her town. “They came to us on foot and they had nothing, we helped them survive, it was very difficult,” she says.


Displaced people are most at risk from land mines, experts say, as they lack the local knowledge to identify danger spots. This is a serious problem in South Sudan where an estimated 240,000 people are fleeing violence in the border states, displaced by internal-communal clashes, or have recently returned to the country following the vote for independence in 2011. Mines lurk near wells, farm land and villages. Explosives are scattered along roads - preventing displaced people from traveling to safety.


Tahani gets nostalgic when she recalls her hometown near Al-Dilling, a diverse town which comprises Nubas, Tahani’s ethnic group, and others such as Hawazzma and Fellata.

She remembers the queues in her restaurant and how she would run out of food at breakfast time.

“Our town is beautiful, it is green and the weather is nice,” she says.

Despite the danger, she plans to take her family home, back to her husband who she married when she was 13. “I really miss him. Even if I have to wait ten years, seeing him is worth the wait,” she says.


Although his family wants him to quit his job, Alex says he has no other options. His education was scant and youth unemployment stands at more than seventy percent in South Sudan. Removing land mines has become a way of life: “My job means a lot to me. Just like any other job, I get paid. And with the wages I earn I take good care of my family.”

Ever since South Sudan became a nation in its own right Alex has been scouring for land mines, aware that each job could be his last.


Like the rest of the population on the move, Tahani’s future is beyond her control: “I don’t want war, I don’t understand why our state has to be at war for so long.”


Alex Remo goes home after a long shift. Tomorrow at six in the morning he will carry on digging for land mines, digging soils where others are afraid to step.


This article is part of:
Land: Those who have no fence around their land...


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