As the orange sunrise streams over the dense, shady forests and neatly marked rice paddies of rural Ziguinchor, in the Casamance region of southern Senegal, it can be easy to forget that war is on the way. A convoy of deminers cuts through the morning’s silence, past children walking to school and rural residents entering the town of Ziguinchor on their way to the small village of Basséré, where they have set up camp.

Conflicts between the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) rebels and the Senegalese army once led to residents completely abandoning the village. Now, constrained by fear of mines left over from the Senegalese army, which once built an outpost here, the few residents who have returned in recent years are restricted in their movements in and out of the village, and their ability to explore the surrounding area. to work in the countryside. where fruit falls and rots without anyone picking it. Mines have been found in nearby villages and in a nearby school building, which has long since been abandoned.

Hopefully, once the area is declared safe, there will be enough space for people to finally come home after decades of displacement. “When the mine clearance is done, it will change life here,” says Liboire Saa, the village chief. “We can move wherever we want.” Mines, left over from both the rebels and the military, closed off villages like Basséré from nearby settlements, schools and health facilities. Mines can go undisturbed for decades, only to be finally unleashed – sometimes deadly – by an errant horse cart or a curious child digging through the sand.

The task of the deminers is complex. In wars around the world, mine clearance is often part of post-war cleanup. But the conflict between the Senegalese government and the MFDC – while far from reaching its peak in the 1980s and 1990s – still lingers on 40 years later. Children go to school, farmers work their fields, tourists rush to Cap Skirring’s beaches — but some 2 square kilometers (1.6 sq mi) of land, pockmarked among Ziguinchor’s 7,352 square kilometers (4,568 sq mi), remains at risk run from “contamination”. ”, in mine clearance terms.

And the rebels still have a few hideouts in the forest, as Fatou Diaw can confirm. Nine years ago, she and a group of her colleagues were kidnapped during a demining mission. After government negotiations, she and the other women were released a month later. It was another month before the rest of her colleagues were released.

Demining the whole of the Casamance completely will likely require total, or near-total, defeat of the fractured rebel groups that remain – and who, despite their diminished capacity for war and status among a conflict wary populace, continue to hold out on the fringes.

But despite the danger, Diaw continues to prepare for missions like the one in Basséré. “I have a cousin who was a mine victim – and he died,” she says. “It’s a risky job…but it’s a career I enjoy.”

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By wy9m6

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