Harare, Zimbabwe – When the call came from war-ravaged South Sudan in June 2011, Job Tawengwa did not hesitate to say yes. Harare-based Tawengwa, a de-mining and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert, knew it would be risky, as usual.
His first call to clear landmines came in 1998, from Mozambique, next to his native Zimbabwe. It was six years after a peace treaty ended a brutal 15-year civil war between the Renamo rebels and the Mozambican army. He joined a team of de-mining experts and was deployed to various provinces of the Southern African country to clear the fields.
Since then, Tawengwa, now 47, has gone everywhere from Iraq to Lebanon and Afghanistan in a life full of uncertainties.
“With this job, there is always risk,” he told Al Jazeera.
For more than 20 years, life in Zimbabwe has also been uncertain for millions of others. Unemployment remains as rife today as it was in 2000 when controversial land reforms hit agricultural output and contributed to an unprecedented economic decline.
Hyperinflation surged to record levels, peaking at 79.6 billion percent month on month in November 2009.
Since then, many have taken to informal employment and the few proper jobs available are now prized; teachers and medical personnel are often owed months of wages by the government but stay because there are no alternatives.
More than two million Zimbabweans have also fled to the larger, more progressive South Africa next door, for better opportunities. Another million Zimbabweans are also estimated to have left Africa entirely.
“With climate change and socioeconomic pressures, migration is the best coping mechanism for Zimbabweans,” IOM chief of mission for Zimbabwe Mario Malanca told Al Jazeera.
“Zimbabweans … aren’t going to the UK or anywhere else because they are good looking, but because they are educated and qualified. I think this should be the message to Zimbabwe to keep producing those brains for the world.”
So for Tawengwa, to stay in a well-paying but risky job was an easy call to make.
“The salaries de-miners earned when we started in the late ’90s were 10 times higher than what professionals were getting in Zimbabwe at the time and that was the first attraction for me,” he told Al Jazeera.
In July 2011, South Sudan gained independence from its larger sibling Sudan after two decades of war.
An estimated two million people died in what remains Africa’s longest running conflict. Even after independence, a power-sharing agreement in the world’s newest nation was not respected, plunging it into further crisis.
There are still bombs, landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and other hazardous materials in many areas of South Sudan, another peril for a population already grappling with armed violence, natural disasters and hunger.
Tawengwa’s job was to be part of an EOD team identifying, assessing and mitigating risks associated with unexploded ordnances using specialised tools and techniques, for a company contracted by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).
UNMAS has a mandate to coordinate the removal of explosive remnants of war (ERW) in countries to protect civilians and ensure the safe return of those who were displaced.
In June 2022, the UN refugee agency reported that UNMAS had successfully eliminated more than one million explosive devices in South Sudan. Among them were 40,121 mines, 76,879 cluster bombs and 974,968 other unexploded devices.
Apart from the inherent dangers of the job, the de-miners have had to deal with gunmen and militias, which still roam the country.
“We encountered armed gunmen and militia everywhere we went who often erected roadblocks and you had to negotiate your way through them,” Tawengwa told Al Jazeera. “The risk is always there on the road from anti-tank mines and anti-personnel mines and you can’t stray off the road.”
Ahead of the South Sudan’s Independence Day celebrations on July 9, 2011, massive explosions rocked a building in the capital, Juba, close to the Celebration Square, the venue of the ceremony. The source of the explosions was a storage bunker used to store military-grade weapons and explosives.
“I had to clear that bunker next to Celebration Square,” Tawengwa recalled. “I was part of the two-member team that had to clear the shells and the projectiles that had not exploded. We were rushing against the clock as independence would be in a few days.”
In the bunker, shells, projectiles and other unexploded ordnances (UXOs) lay in a pile that the de-mining team carried to a pick-up truck, he said.
As he drove the loaded truck to the destruction site, he remembered an incident in which two de-miners had died on duty – and prayed he would not meet the same fate.
“When you fire a charge to the heaped ordnances, some are not destroyed but they have been exposed,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think not enough time had lapsed before trying to heap them back together and handling them … and they went off and it reaped the intestines of the other lady and the other guy also died.”
After Juba, Tawengwa found himself in Wau, some 60km from the capital.
Wau was Tawengwa’s home for three months and he slept in tents at a campsite, with little more than basic necessities – and plenty of challenges.
The war had exacerbated ethnic tensions in South Sudan, a country with 65 unique ethnicities and this was reflected in even mundane ways.
“I assembled a team and picked various people from various groups but it became very tribal with others feeling left out,” Tawegwa said. “The presence of a certain tribe in another area can also trigger problems on the road to the hazardous area.”
Owing to the risks, some workers from certain ethnic groups refused to work in certain geographical locations for fear of their safety. Ethnic militias would often stop motorcades and question why a certain member of a rival ethnicity was in a convoy, he said.
Once, gunmen attacked a camp of de-miners in Wau and held them hostage, before taking money and valuables and vanishing into the night with them.
In another incident, as a convoy of de-miners made its way on the road in Wau, a hail of bullets hit one of the cars. “The passengers of the attacked vehicle were lucky the bullets did not hit anyone,” Tawengwa said.
Fighters with assault rifles emerged and then robbed the other vehicles in the convoy. The assailants eventually sped off after abducting seven miners and hijacking three four-wheel drives. The kidnapped de-miners were held for a week and were only freed after successful negotiations with the rebels.
Toyota LandCruisers, according to Tawengwa, are the vehicles most sought-after by rebels because of their ability to negotiate rugged terrain.
“They [rebels, also] retrofit and mount machine guns in the rear,” Woodrow Chivhu, a mechanic who spent several years in South Sudan, told Al Jazeera. “In my time there, I don’t know how many cruisers we lost.”
Tawengwa has many other frightening stories.
Once, a young boy brought him a rocket-propelled granade launcher he had picked up somewhere.
Another time, a local military contractor showed up drunk at the Wau camp, brandishing a landmine he had dug up. Tawengwa called an interpreter, ordered the immediate evacuation of the camp, and helped the man delicately put down the mine.
“I ended up sharing a tent with the UXO and took it out for disposal the next morning,” he said.
Despite the horrors of handling landmines, Tawengwa said the job also has its highs.
“The other day, I saw kids in the community where we had cleared mines play soccer in a field that they had previously avoided,” he said. “That gave me a very good feeling about the work I and my colleagues do.”
In touch with home
Back in Harare, Tawengwa’s wife and three children are used to his infrequent visits. After three months in the field, the de-miners usually get up to three weeks to visit their families.
In the early days in South Sudan, smartphones and internet connectivity were sparse, and staying in touch with Harare was tough, he said.
His first child, now in university, was born in 2000 while he was on assignment in Kosovo. Tawengwa got to see her for the first time when his wife came to welcome him home at the Harare airport.
These days, though, communications with his family are much easier.
“Technology was limited and we would have one satellite phone among a group of 50 people and we would get a call from home once a week or we would drive to the nearest town to talk and let her [my wife] know I am safe and well,” he said. “Now I get to do video calls and I can talk to all of them on birthdays, and so on.”