Senegal: Casamance still mined, still dangerous

30-12-2009 Feature

Martine Niafouna lost part of her right leg while walking down a mined trail in Casamance, an area of Senegal that has seen considerable violence over the past three decades.

It has been this way for a few months already. Martine doesn't go out a lot. And when she receives a visitor, she's discreet about it, her scarf-covered head barely rising above the low wall outside her little house in Ziguinchor. " This way, " she murmurs softly. Standing motionless behind this cement screen that rises to her shoulders, Martine smiles shyly, as if allowing people to see only part of her made her feel better for a moment, as if in others'eyes she could still be the young woman she once was, who walked normally on whole legs, who didn't have a pair of crutches as her constant companions.  

Martine Niafouna in her little house in Zinguichor    

On 8 June 2009, Martine – who is 36, has two children of her own, and supports 10 brothers and sisters – stepped on a landmine. " It happened in Koureng, my home village, " says Martine, sitting on her bed. " We wanted to return there to live. That day my grandfather was cutting wood in the forest so he could build a cabin. But there was a lot of wood and it was hard for him to carry, so I went to help. " Martine pauses, looking absently at the floor, then resumes. " It wasn't even a hundred metres from the houses. This path was used all the time, even by the soldiers. It didn't occur to us that there were any mines there. "

 "I keep thinking about it"  

Martine lost her right foot and part of her leg. Her other leg is swollen by burns. " You see, " she says, lifting the hem of her colourful dress, " I have to go back to the doctor. I've found another fragment. " Hesitantly she runs her fingers across the skin beneath her knee, pausing at the small hard lump. She touches it with great concentration, her expression troubled, a stranger to her own body. " My brothers tell me that I should just forget about it, that the passing time will make things easier. Other mine victims tell me the same thing. But I just can't get it out of my head. "

The day Martine stepped on the mine, the army took her to the hospital in Ziguinchor. The ICRC helped provide care for her and gave her a pair of crutches. Members of the Senegalese Association of Mine Victims came to her bedside. The father of her two children came from Dakar to see her. But although her loved ones encourage her and she takes care to look her best, Martine is still finding it hard to feel l ike a woman again. Especially as reflexes persist from the time before her accident. " Sometimes I'll have the impulse to jump up and run across the room, and my mother shouts'Careful, you'll fall!'" Martine sighs, her eyes misting. " It's ruined my life. I can't do anything anymore. Anything at all. "

 Martine wants to believe  

The fact is that since her accident Martine has been living in the past tense, thinking all day long about the life, the plans and the desires she had before her accident. She sits in her small room that contains nothing but a bed, a low table and a storm lantern. There will be no more work in the rice fields, no extra money from doing laundry from the hotels in Cape Skirring during tourist season. There will now be no way to earn what she needs to feed and send her brothers and sisters to school. That's the hardest part for her. " Mom and I used to be able to get by, even after my father died. But now she's alone and has to look after everyone. We can no longer afford to rent the room next door, so we all have to sleep here.

And the future? " Sometimes I get downhearted " , Martine admits. " People say'You'll see, you'll work again'. Maybe. Maybe if I had an artificial leg. " She wants to believe it's true and there is hope in her face. She has had her first appointment. Initial measurements of her leg have been taken. But first the wound has to heal completely.

In the meantime, the people who hoped to go back and live in Koureng after nine years away have once again had to flee. Martine's accident has awakened old fears and she has joined the long list of mine victims (748 according to the Senegal's mine-action centre) in 27 years of conflict in Casamance.