In a land ravaged by war, where workers, families and children are nervous to tread, the path to safety is being drawn. By dogs.
In Sudan, literally generations of warfare have left behind countless landmines. And for the last few years, trained, organized dogs are putting their impeccable sense of smell to work, identifying the sites of these mines and making it possible to clear them out.
The project began in 2008, when Dr. Muiz Ali Taha graduated as a veterinarian and took a job with the UN Mine Action office. “While I was working, I realized that one of the ways to clear mines was through dogs. So I started researching the topic, gathering data and assessing the prospect of introducing this method to Sudan,” Dr. Muiz said.
In their training, the dogs go through 50 zoned off areas- half of these spaces contain detonated mines, and half are left empty. In as little as six months, a dog can be sufficiently trained to spot the difference, and be ready for work in the field.
When a dog detects a mine, the spot is marked with a red flag. Once the entire area has been surveyed and marked, an ordinance disposal person comes in to remove each mine.
“From 2011 to 2015, we have worked on eight projects,” Dr. Muiz explains. “Most of these projects were related to development. They would request demining through dogs because they needed the area cleared and returned quickly.”
The dogs are fast workers, able to clear an area of 1,200 square meters (a little over a quarter of a football field) in two hours.
The landmines are relics of generations of strife in Sudan. Over a fifty year period, from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s, the country endured not one but two decade-long civil wars. And even before then, the country served as a battleground in World War 2 while still a British colony.
According to the UN Mine Action Service, mines can be found in 235 locations in the country. Over 2,000 people—a quarter of them children—have been injured or killed by the mines, in just the last decade. And the anxiety about the landmines, and limitations and inconveniences they place on travel, put a damper on the local economy.
And now, thanks to the work of these dogs, vast swaths of land are being cleared. Much work remains, but there’s no denying that the suffering of millions of people is, at least in part, being alleviated by these brilliant dogs and their brave handlers.
“I trust the work of a dog more than a mine-clearance machine,” Omar Salih, one of the dog handlers, said. “A rock or a dead battery can lead to miscalculations but a dog works with a conscience. I would confidently walk through an area demined by a dog.”