SÉVARÉ, Mali, 28 September 2012 – Children run and play, kicking up dust behind them. Mothers stir pots over open flames. Elders rest in the shade of makeshift tarps. There is a feeling of home here, at this campsite housing more than 400 people forced to flee conflict in the north of Mali.
A coup in March destabilized Mali and opened the way for rebel groups to gain control of the northern Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu regions. The small camp for internally displaced persons is exceptional, in Mali. More than half of the 400,000 people who fled the fighting crossed national borders to large refugee camps. The majority of those who remain within Mali are living with relatives or friends throughout the country.
Basic needs met
The camp in Sévaré is run by the government and supported by local and international aid organizations, including UNICEF. Thus far, donations of food, tents, blankets and health care have been ample. UNICEF has provided latrines and is monitoring water and sanitation, which is crucial at this time when cholera is a threat.
The camp is clean and well managed, and basic needs are being met.
Explosive remnants of war a looming threat
For now, the children are safe. However, fighting often leaves a dangerous trail. If and when their families return to the north, the children will be at risk of the dangers from remnants of war. As of June, 19 boys and two girls had been injured by explosive remnants of war in 2012. Four children had lost their lives.
According to UNICEF Mali Mine Risk Education Specialist Sebastian Kasack, “The risk-taking behaviour is that they basically don’t know that these things are dangerous. They start playing with it, or they may actually activate it by mere chance, hitting a device, stepping over something that’s hidden and making it explode.”
Raising awareness a priority
These dangers are recent and unfamiliar to most Malians. Awareness is crucial in the effort to save lives. For this reason, UNICEF is staging a large-scale response by holding mine risk education workshops to train partner organizations in how to conduct awareness sessions for children. The goal is for internally displaced children, as well as those living in conflict areas of the north, to know how to stay safe and how to protect themselves and their family members.
Just down the road at the Sévaré town hall, UNICEF holds a mine risk education workshop for three humanitarian aid workers from a local non-governmental organization. They have been selected to facilitate awareness sessions on the dangers of landmines and unexploded ordnance based on their experience holding awareness sessions on other children’s issues. They speak the languages most common in the north.
UNICEF and the facilitators visit the Sévaré camp. Children of all ages and sizes flock to the meeting hall. They are still in play mode, chattering loudly. But, once the session starts, all eyes and ears are on the presentation.
There is a leaflet that uses simple images – examples of unexploded ordnance, injuries that can result and the risk of death, depicted by a skull and crossbones. The children engage with the facilitators, answering and asking questions. The children get the message. They learn simple rules. If they see something suspicious they should stop, retreat, go home and tell their parents – who should contact local authorities.
After the awareness session, there is a buzz in the camp. Children take the leaflets back to their tents and immediately share them with their parents. A small boy repeats what he has learned to his mother. She shares it with another mother. The awareness session has been a great success.
Beyond the awareness sessions
These life-saving messages need to reach all children and families at risk, including those still living in the north. So, a key component of the programme is training organizations currently operating there. UNICEF’s campaign will involve transmitting radio messages in five languages and eventually going door to door to reach families hosting internally displaced persons.
Safety is a right for all children, and, in Mali, raising their awareness about explosive remnants of war is one way to help achieve it.