From the Field: True grit in the minefields of South Sudan

Stephen Fantham

22 February 2011 – From a distance, the vehicle seemed like a white speck on the horizon, bouncing along – at great speed – the rough, unfinished roads of South Sudan, still about a half-hour south of the compound belonging to the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), in the capital, Juba.

When it hit bumps in the rough road, the 4WD bounced into the air a little, prompting groans of pain from the big man stretched out across the back seats.

That man, Stephen Fantham, had good reason to be groaning – the UN de-miner had just had his right foot and ankle blown off by a land-mine.

Less than an hour before, while going about his work for the Sudan office of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) – the UN operation spearheading the response to the problem of landmines and explosive remnants of war – those limbs had been destroyed by an anti-personnel landmine, missed by a mine-clearance team. But despite the shock of what had just happened, Mr. Fanthan’s focus was firmly set on dealing with the life-and-death situation he now found himself in.

While trying hard to keep his right leg elevated in the back of the vehicle, he checked his cell-phone again and was delighted to see that he finally had a connectivity signal – as sometimes happens due to atmospheric conditions in the area, neither the satellite phone nor the dedicated radio in the car had a signal, preventing calls being made from them.

Mr. Fantham called colleagues at the UN Mine Action Office, part of UNMAS, located in the UNMIS compound in Juba, and calmly relayed a few key points of information.

First, there had been an accident at the mine-clearance site about 65 kilometres south of Juba. Second, he was in a vehicle that would need to be waved past the security gates at the compound without interference or delay. And lastly, Mr. Fantham said the Bangladeshi military hospital supporting UNMIS, and also located in the compound, needed to know that a landmine accident involving a traumatic amputation of the lower leg was on its way in.

Despite the end of Sudan’s civil war in 2005 and ensuing reconciliation efforts, it is still among the most heavily mined nations on Earth, with landmines and other unexploded ordinance (UXO) left behind after decades of conflict posing a tremendous threat to the safety of the Sudanese people.

With an annual budget of $70 million and the second largest mine action programme in the world, the UN Mine Action Office co-ordinates and oversees all mine action activities in Sudan. Between 2002 and September 2010, it managed the clearance of more than 27,000 mines and 890,000 UXO, opening 43,000 kilometres of roads and releasing 64 million square metres of land.

At the time of Mr Fantham’s accident, in April 2009, much clearance work had been completed. However, it is estimated that landmines and UXO still contaminate thousands of kilometres of roads and millions of square metres of land, making vast areas of Sudan impassable, preventing aid distribution, agriculture and the resettlement of homeless refugees.

On the day of the accident, Mr Fantham, a quality assurance officer for the UN Mine Action Office, was part of a team overseeing mine-clearance efforts for local sub-offices. A mine-clearance team from an international contractor had completed its sweep of a 1.1-kilometre stretch of the busy road from Juba to Nimule, on the Ugandan border, clearing mines and UXO from a strip of land that measured 13 metres to either side of the centre of the road.

Once Mr. Fantham had verified that the boundaries of the cleared area were clearly marked, it would be added to information management maps, and road construction crews would be able to operate their equipment on the road-side and perform needed repairs to the road itself.

Accompanied by his assistant, a Sudanese national, and a member of a mine-clearance team belonging to a non-governmental organization, Mr. Fantham was walking through bush beside the road when he stepped on a mine that had been missed during previous clearance.

He heard a loud bang and then found himself sitting on the ground, his right foot gone and what remained of his ankle hanging by a scrap of flesh.

Looking back, Mr. Fantham recalls the injury bleeding surprisingly little and not being particularly painful at the time – he bound his ankle and thigh with shirts and had his companions rush him on the high-speed trip to Juba. An hour later, they pulled up to the UNMIS hospital doors. The next thing the New Zealander remembers is waking up hours later, the ruin of his leg now a clean stump ending at mid-shin.

All things considered, Mr. Fantham, a 23-year veteran of the New Zealand Army, considers himself lucky. Because he had been able to obtain expert medical attention at the hospital operated by peacekeepers from UNMIS’ Bangladeshi contingent, the injury was not life-threatening – unlike the situation for most Sudanese nationals in rural areas, where hospital care is almost unheard of. Had Mr. Fantham been alone in the bush, his story would have ended very differently.

Within two weeks of the accident, he returned to his family’s home in Brisbane, Australia, for a five-month recovery – after which, fitted with a shiny new prosthetic leg, he returned to his job in Sudan.

“Never hesitated for one second – I said that to myself the next day in hospital in Nairobi, that I wanted to return to Sudan; the office said they wanted me back and once my wife and family got over the initial shock, they knew I was focused on getting a new leg and getting back,” Mr. Fantham said. “The hardest thing was being patient enough and letting the leg heal – once I got the second prosthetic on at five months I knew I was away!”

Mr. Fantham acknowledges that some would express surprise that he would return to the job that cost him his foot and lower leg, especially those closest to him.

“Typically, my wife’s reaction was along the lines if ‘Go on then, go back and blow your other
leg off! Crazy bas***d!’ and said with a smile on her face,” Mr. Fantham said. “But it was my motivation every day: ‘When can I go back to work? When can I go back to work?’”

He readily admits though that his family’s support is crucial to the work he does. After leaving the New Zealand armed forces, Mr. Fantham spent six years working for a Swiss de-mining non-governmental organization, before joining the UN Mine Action Office in Sudan in mid-2007.

“She, my children and friends don't, or can't, understand what we do here in Sudan,” Mr. Fantham said. “They just know I love what I do, support me in that regard and are happy that I am happy.”

And that happiness stems from a combination of a love for the work itself and a strong sense of helping those worse off.

“Every mine that comes out of the ground, that’s perhaps someone’s life saved. That’s something real, that’s something tangible, that’s something exciting and challenging to do with your life,” Mr. Fantham said. “There are a whole lot of people worse off than I am – how can I complain when we look at the abject poverty here in Sudan, let alone Africa and the rest of the world?”


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