Ziguinchor, Senegal – Night was falling, and Boubacar Ba was once again hunting in the forest outside his hometown of Mpak in southern Senegal. Then a crack rang out, not from his rifle or another hunter. Not the Senegalese army or even the rebels waging a war for secession in the area.
It was a landmine, which blew off his right leg.
Ba tied up a makeshift tourniquet, but when he hobbled up on his left leg, he quickly discovered it was broken, and crashed back onto the forest floor.
“When someone hears these mine accidents, an explosion, they can’t go adventuring to see what happened,” without putting themselves at risk, Ba told Al Jazeera. Alone, he ended up crawling on his elbows 10km (6.2km) to find help.
That was in 2004.
The mine he had stepped on had been forgotten at the start of Senegal’s simmering civil war two decades earlier. These days, Ba walks with a slight limp, his prosthetic leg deftly hidden under his boubou and pants.
The region of Ziguinchor, along the porous borders of The Gambia to the north and Guinea-Bissau to the south, contains the last fragments of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC). The armed movement was born in 1982, pushing for the independence of Casamance, the collective of regions situated underneath The Gambia, which is enveloped by Senegal.
Peace has largely returned to the Casamance – comprising the regions of Ziguinchor, Sedhiou, and Kolda – since then. A few strongholds of fractured rebel groups hold out near the borderlands, but elsewhere, citizens mostly go about their day without a second thought, and tourists hit the beach in the resort town of Cap Skirring.
But in too many villages, mines remain. Estimates from the Senegalese National Mine Action Center (CNAMS), the government authority in charge of demining activities, put some 49 to 170 hectares (120 to 420 acres) of land, mostly all in the Ziguinchor region, as still at risk of being mined. In addition to the physical risk posed by the ordnance, the mines – planted by the Senegalese military and the rebels – often cut people off from roads, schools or farmland.
“The socioeconomic impact is real,” Emmanuel Sauvage, Senegal country director at Humanity and Inclusion, an NGO contracted by CNAMS to carry out demining operations, told Al Jazeera. “It’s affecting the whole economy.”
Reports of civilian victims first appeared in the 1990s, more than a decade into the conflict. Estimates of how many people have been killed or injured are hard to pin down.
The Senegalese Association of Mine Victims (ASVM) counts 482 members on its rolls – mostly people directly injured, but also including “indirect victims”, like family members who sometimes struggle economically after a breadwinner is killed or disabled. CNAMS estimates 453 civilian injuries, and 157 deaths. Incidents are isolated, but pop up from time to time: Most recently, six people were killed by a mine returning from Friday prayers last year.
In the village of Bassere, about 8km from the Guinea-Bissau border, Pierre Marie Badji slowly waves his metal detector across the barren, brown earth. Dressed in a sky-blue kevlar vest and a face shield, he’s scanning what used to be thick brush, chewed up by a tank-like demining machine whose rotating claws eat away at the bush, seeking explosives. Badji’s metal detector is silent, so he marks the area immediately in front of him as clear, and takes another step forward.
A few dozen meters away, his colleague Papa Bourama Diedhiou is on his knees, slowly scraping away dirt. His metal detector went off, and now he’s inspecting further, hunched over what would be the blast zone if a mine indeed goes off.
It’s an old can of sardines. He tosses it away.
“If I find a mine, I’m happy,” he said. “I’m saving lives.’”
Bassere, sitting under towering baobab and kapok trees deep in one of Ziguinchor’s lush forests, was completely abandoned in 1990, though residents have started to trickle back in recent years. For a time, the Senegalese military set up an outpost here, though they left about 15 years ago. But when villagers returned, they found a plaque in the forest warning of mines. Mines found in nearby villages, and by the abandoned school on the other side of town, added to their fears.
“The forest has reclaimed 80 percent of the village,” said Bassere resident Therese Sagna. “This year, there was a lot of fruit in the woods that spoiled because no one could access it.”
Liboire Sagna, the village chief, said uncertainty about what areas are safe is preventing the rest of the village from moving back and making it impossible to build a school or clinic.
While the total at risk of having mines is small – a bit less than 2 square kilometres (1.6 square miles) maximum, mostly in the Ziguinchor region, which covers 7,352sq km (4,568sq miles) – finding scattered pockets of mines in the region’s dense, isolated forests can be a bit like finding needles in a haystack.
So far, the demining team, run by the nongovernment organisation Humanity and Inclusion, hasn’t found anything in Bassere besides sardine cans and old bullet shells. Charles Coly, the team leader, reckons it will take three months to clear the area.
A simmering conflict
Authorities in Dakar say the Casamance can be mine-free by 2026. But because demining teams can only safely work in areas without rebel presence, the success of that plan largely rests on the Senegalese military snuffing out the elusive rebel camps that remain. The conflict is arguably Africa’s longest-running war, and total victory against a small group of ideologically-driven fighters across heavily forested borderlands is far from an easy task.
Ba, now the community outreach leader at the ASVM, has contacted rebels to convince them to allow demining teams to come into their territory, as has Barham Thiam, director of CNAMS. But so far, both men say their overtures have been unsuccessful.
“I told the guy, OK, you want independence. If you get it, it would be hard for your budget to find money to destroy mines, and then to find money to rehabilitate the victims,” said Thiam. “I told him, somehow, we are working for you … If the government brings you a road, take it. A bridge, OK, whatever. A demining programme – take it.”
The continued rebel presence has been an existential threat to deminers too. Nine years ago, Fatou Diaw was kidnapped on a demining mission alongside a few colleagues. She was held in a rebel camp in the countryside for a month until government negotiations led to her and her female colleagues’ release. The men were held another month before being freed eventually.
“I [told them] we didn’t know [that area] was a red-line – otherwise, we wouldn’t have come to work there,” she says, suiting up for the demining mission in Bassere, unfazed all these years later. “We don’t work for the military,” she recalled telling the rebels. “We work for the population.”
Given the opportunity, she believes she can get the rebels to give up their mines – if not their other weapons or their cause – but “they’re not easy to convince”.
Meanwhile, recent peace agreements, like one signed in August with some of the rebel factions along Guinea-Bissau’s border, offer hope – but only applied to a few groups.
So, the conflict simmers as rebels traffic illegal timber and cannabis far out in the countryside. But it still boils over from time to time.
Amid a renewed offensive by the Senegalese military earlier this year, some 6,000 refugees fled to neighbouring The Gambia. Earlier this month, three refugees were killed in a Senegalese drone strike. The Gambian government insists that while victims were registered as refugees, the strike happened on Senegalese territory, across the porous border. Gambian opposition politicians, meanwhile, have complained that the conflict is increasingly spilling out of Senegal.
At home, the rebels are facing tough odds. The conditions that led to the revolt – land reform laws that tipped power into the hands of the Senegalese state, and an economic downturn – are ancient history to a population ground down by four decades of war.
Anyone under 40 has known conflict their entire lives. Those taking up arms in the ’80s could easily point to Casamance’s distance from Dakar – literally in terms of geography and figuratively in the lack of investment from the government – as serious grievances. Economic development projects – roads and bridges – and a new university in Ziguinchor have helped close those gaps.
For advocacy groups like the ASVM, where some members have lifelong disabilities, not even physical peace can bring peace of mind until the mines are fully rooted out.
“Even if there’s a definitive peace in the Casamance … we’re going to continue to work,” said Souleymane Diallo, ASVM’s finance chief, himself missing a leg.