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Protecting children from unexploded ordnance in Libya's conflict zone
Communication Specialist Rebecca Fordham is a member of UNICEF’s Libya Response Team. Following is her first-hand account of the devastating impact of explosive remnants of war on children caught in conflict.
By Rebecca Fordham
MISRATA, Libya, 6 June 2011 – Two young boys, both severely injured by explosive remnants of war, lay beside each other in the field hospital aboard a relief ship in the eastern Libyan port of Misrata.
The boys’ fathers stood patiently beside Ayman, 14, and, Mamud, 9, on the ship provided by LibAid, the Libyan Agency for Relief and Humanitarian Assistance. The boys had been playing near the Medical Technical College in Misrata, Ayman’s father told me, when his son picked up what he thought was shrapnel from an exploded bomb to take home and show his family. It blew up in his hand.
Ayman’s father said the boy knew that cluster bombs, which can explode when touched, had been dropped in the area. But he didn’t know exactly where they were or what they looked like.
These weapons pose particular risks for children, who are naturally curious and often pick up items that adults are more cautious about touching. In Libya, some children have been living under stressful conflict conditions for more than three months. They need to understand the dangers of unexploded ordnance, and they need safe spaces in which to play.
Over the last couple of weeks in Libya, I’ve been visiting educational workshops on exploded remnants of war. Led by trained community members and conducted with technical support from UNICEF and its partners, the workshops seek to increase understanding of this issue among vulnerable children and their families.
The workshops are taking place at camps for displaced people across Benghazi. Plans call for their extension to Misrata and other conflict-affected areas as security conditions allow.
There were 332 children at one of the workshops I visited. Most of their families had come from the eastern towns Brega and Ajdabiya to escape heavy fighting. The children were absorbed in the workshop activities, studying memory cards and meticulously copying pictures of explosive remnants of war with coloured pencils. One boy from Ajdabiya told me that he liked making new friends at the workshop – and that the memory games would help him know what to look out for.
The next challenge will be ensure that children from the workshops remember what they have learned so that they can act as be peer counsellors for their friends back home.
The threat is most severe in the areas around Ajdabiya, Brega and, especially, Misrata. Limited surveys of Misrata confirm the use of cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines throughout the city. Thirty ammunition storage areas reportedly have been destroyed by air strikes in Misrata, spreading even more explosive remnants.
According to International Committee of the Red Cross, these remnants have caused over a dozen casualties in Misrata during the past six weeks.
Small arms threat
In Benghazi, yet another concern is posed by small arms and munitions that became accessible to the local community when large stores of weapons – known as katibas – was opened up during the conflict. These weapons are now being secured by the international mine-action community in coordination with local partners.
I visited, Fatima, 8, at her grandparents’ home in Al-Rajma, eastern Benghazi. She was injured when a katiba exploded nearby while her family was enjoying a day out. Her father was killed by the blast.
Fatima said she and her family didn’t know the area was dangerous. It has since been closed off.
In order to ensure that communities get the information they need to avert such tragedies – and to facilitate mine clearance as the security situation allows – UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and local partners have joined to form the Joint Mine Action Coordinated Team.
In Misrata, Handicap International, UNICEF’s implementing partner, is providing leaflets and posters to communities threatened by unexploded remnants of war. Radio stations have also received targeted messages encouraging safe behaviour around munitions.
Advocacy efforts continue, as well, in an attempt to prevent the use of anti-personnel weapons by the parties to the Libyan conflict. And massive information campaigns about unexploded ordnance are under way, calling upon community leaders, schoolmasters and religious leaders to help protect civilians.
As for Ayman and Mamud, the injured boys I met aboard the relief ship, they were taken to a Misrata hospital, where Ayman had to have both his hands amputated. The boys are now receiving medical treatment in Benghazi. I have visited them in hospital there and hope to see them again soon.
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