For the first time since fleeing South Sudan's civil war eight years ago, Jacob Wani returned home excited to rebuild his life. But when the 45-year-old farmer tried to access his land in Eastern Equatoria state's Magwi County, he was banned, told that it had been labeled hazardous and contaminated with mines. "My area is dangerous," Wani said, standing in his shop in Moli village where he now lives, a few miles from the farm. "I do not have the capacity to rebuild in this place and I am also afraid (of explosives). If I go, maybe something can hurt me." As South Sudanese trickle back into the country after a peace deal was signed in 2018 to end a five-year civil war that killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions, many are returning to areas riddled with mines left from decades of conflict. More than 5,000 South Sudanese have been killed or injured by land mines and unexploded ordnance since 2004, according to the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS). South Sudan is trying to clear all anti-personnel minefields and cluster munitions in the country by 2026. While more than 84 million square meters of cluster munitions and mines have been cleared in nearly two decades, according to UNMAS — equivalent to approximately 15,000 American football fields — experts doubt that the deadline will be met as munitions are being found across the country daily. Ten people were killed in March after mistakenly playing with a grenade in a remote village in Western Bahr el Ghazal State. "The contamination is too huge," said Jurkuch Barach Jurkuch, chairperson for South Sudan National Mines Action. Efforts are also complicated by a lack of funding, continued insecurity and flooding during the rainy season, he said. Eastern Equatoria state, along the border with Uganda, is South Sudan's most heavily contaminated area, hit by wars with northern Sudan before gaining independence in 2011, fighting with the Lord's Resistance Army led by Uganda's notorious warlord Joseph Kony and South Sudan's civil war. By the end of 2021, the state had the most areas with cluster munitions in the country — 55 out of a total of 123 — according to Mine Action Review, which does global mine analysis. The state is also the second most returned to in the country since the peace agreement, with more than 115,00 people coming back, according to the U.N. During a visit to Magwi County in May, families told The Associated Press that they had their food rations cut by 50% in refugee camps in Uganda, which pushed them to come back hoping they'd be able to cultivate. But people are returning to the remnants of conflict-riddled villages, with little food, shelter or open schools, all of which is compounded by the mines. In some communes, more than half of the area is contaminated, locals say. "Whenever there is a land mine, there is a danger. So everybody fears to go cultivate and do activities in the bush because of fear of land mines," said Sebit Kilama, a community leader. Private contractors and aid groups are trying to clear the area from contamination, but say the task is enormous. During clearance in a cluster munitions site in May by the aid group MAG, focused on mine clearance, 16 unexploded munitions were found in less than a week of work. Locals are also finding devices a few miles from main roads. When AP journalists visited, a villager alerted the demining team of an unexploded 60 millimeter mortar shell, which he found a few miles into the brush. MAG is working with communities to raise awareness about the danger of mines and other unexploded ordnance. "Land mines don't have an expiry date," said Clara Hayat, a community outreach officer with MAG, during a talk to a group of children in a village where people recently returned from Uganda. "Don't bring them home, because they can kill," she said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned his people early Saturday that retreating Russian forces were creating “a complete disaster” outside the capital as they leave mines across “the whole territory,” including around homes and corpses. He issued the warning as the humanitarian crisis in the encircled city of Mariupol deepened, with Russian forces blocking evacuation operations for the second day in a row. Meanwhile, the Kremlin accused the Ukrainians of launching a helicopter attack on a fuel depot on Russian soil. Ukraine denied responsibility for the fiery blast, but if Moscow’s claim is confirmed, it would be the war’s first known attack in which Ukrainian aircraft penetrated Russian airspace. “Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, five weeks after Moscow began sending upwards of 150,000 of its own troops across Ukraine’s border. Russia continued withdrawing some of its ground forces from areas around Kyiv after saying earlier this week it would reduce military activity near the Ukrainian capital and the northern city of Chernihiv. “They are mining the whole territory. They are mining homes, mining equipment, even the bodies of people who were killed,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. “There are a lot of trip wires, a lot of other dangers.” Ukraine’s military said it had retaken 29 settlements in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions. Still, Ukraine and its allies warned that the Kremlin is not de-escalating to promote trust at the bargaining table, as it claimed, but instead resupplying and shifting its troops to the country’s east. Those movements appear to be preparation for an intensified assault on the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in the country's east, which includes Mariupol. Zelenskyy warned of difficult battles ahead as Russia redeploys troops. “We are preparing for an even more active defense,” he said. He did not say anything about the latest round of talks, which took place Friday by video. At a round of talks earlier in the week, Ukraine said it would be willing to abandon a bid to join NATO and declare itself neutral — Moscow’s chief demand — in return for security guarantees from several other countries. The invasion has left thousands dead and driven more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine. Mariupol, the shattered and besieged southern port city, has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. Its capture would be a major prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin, giving his country an unbroken land bridge to Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014. On Friday, the International Committee for the Red Cross said it was unable to carry out an operation to bring civilians out of Mariupol by bus. City authorities said the Russians were blocking access to the city. “We do not see a real desire on the part of the Russians and their satellites to provide an opportunity for Mariupol residents to evacuate to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol's mayor, wrote on the Telegram messaging app. He said Russian forces “are categorically not allowing any humanitarian cargo, even in small amounts, into the city.” Around 100,000 people are believed to remain in the city, down from a prewar 430,000. Weeks of Russian bombardment and street fighting have caused severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine. “We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors that residents in Mariupol have suffered,” Red Cross spokesperson Ewan Watson said. On Thursday, Russian forces blocked a 45-bus convoy attempting to evacuate people from Mariupol and seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies bound for the city, Ukrainian authorities said. Zelenskyy said more than 3,000 people were able to leave Mariupol on Friday. He said he discussed the humanitarian disaster with French President Emmanuel Macron by telephone and with the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, during her visit to Kyiv. “Europe doesn’t have the right to be silent about what is happening in our Mariupol,” Zelenskyy said. “The whole world should respond to this humanitarian catastrophe.” Elsewhere, at least three Russian ballistic missiles were fired late Friday at the Odesa region on the Black Sea, regional leader Maksim Marchenko said. The Ukrainian military said the Iskander missiles did not hit the critical infrastructure they targeted. Odesa is Ukraine’s largest port and the headquarters of its navy. As for the fuel depot explosion, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said two Ukrainian helicopter gunships flew in extremely low and attacked the civilian oil storage facility on the outskirts of the city of Belgorod, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Ukraine border. The regional governor said two workers at the depot were wounded, but the Rosneft state oil company denied anyone was hurt. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said on Ukrainian television: “For some reason they say that we did it, but in fact this does not correspond with reality." Later, in an interview with Fox, Zelenskyy refused to say whether Ukraine was behind the attack. On the outskirts of Kyiv, where Russian troops have withdrawn, damaged cars lined the streets of Irpin, a suburban area popular with young families, now in ruins. Emergency workers carried elderly people on stretchers over a wrecked bridge to safety. Three wooden crosses next to a residential building that was damaged in a shelling marked the graves of a mother and son and an unknown man. A resident who gave her name only as Lila said she helped hurriedly bury them on March 5, just before Russian troops moved in. “They were hit with artillery and they were burned alive,” she said. An Irpin resident who gave his name only as Andriy said the Russians packed up their equipment and left on Tuesday. The next day, they shelled the town for close to an hour before Ukrainian soldiers retook it. “I don’t think this is over,” Andriy said. “They will be back.”