Creative Safety Measures - Educating Children about Unexploded Ordnance through Art and Drama
By Pamela Renner
The risks of war don’t end when the last tanks and soldiers have vanished. For people in villages and cities affected by bombings, post-war danger can lurk in the most ordinary places. Remnants of explosives are scattered unseen in Georgian fields and along roads where children play.
For nearly fifty-thousand schoolchildren in Gori, Kareli, Kaspi and Khashuri -- areas that saw heavy shelling during the war -- the unexploded ordnance from August’s bombings are the conflict’s longest-lasting peril. These materials remain dangerous for 50 years or more: sometimes up to a century. They are a particular risk for young people, whose curiosity can get the better of their good sense.
Recently, UNICEF joined with HALO Trust and the Georgian Ministry of Education and Science to create an effective risk-awareness program in 180 schools of the conflict-affected districts. The aim is simple: to teach 46,000 young people to avoid handling dangerous remnants. Children and teens can spread the message in their communities. If anyone sees suspicious materials, stay away. A licensed professional must be called.
“Our main aim is: Do not touch. You can never tell if mine-risk education works, but we’ve had very few accidents,” says Nicki Whitley, the program coordinator with HALO Trust. With funding from the German government, a comprehensive training program was developed for Georgian teachers. To implement the project, UNICEF partnered with HALO Trust, the international organization that specializes in defusing land mines and minimizing long-term risk from unexploded remnants of war. Trainers visited each school in the high-risk areas, holding information sessions for teachers.
They disseminated special lessons on the risks of unexploded ordnance. Educational materials were prepared and distributed in schools to increase awareness: posters, leaflets, memory and sequence cards, colouring books for younger children, and an instructional workbook.
According to specialists at HALO Trust, only three postwar accidents have come to light since the Russian troop withdrawal: two in Gori, and one in a village near South Ossetia, called Kirbali. Eter Karkozashvili is director of the Kirbali village school. One of her students, Soso Kharkeli, 15, was gravely wounded by an explosive remnant of the war. Soso lost use of one hand, in an explosion that severed his forearm at the elbow.
Karkozashvili says, “He’s back in school now.” The teenager is not using a prosthetic device yet. “Doctors say it is still too soon. Time must pass for healing,” says the school principal. Soso’s peers and teachers are thankful to have him back.
Karkozashvili continues, “We are amazed by his strength. He’s stronger than us, the adults. His soul is not broken. He did not even cry or mourn when we were bringing him to Tbilisi for emergency care.”
The school director continues: “It has been an unfortunate lesson. We’ve launched extensive safety and awareness programs, distributing brochures, holding lectures on safety, and hanging signs around the school—and in adjacent areas where we think it’s dangerous for our kids to go.” Educators hope that there will be no further harm to civilians.
Project director Nicki Whitley, of HALO Trust, would like the safety message to remain in the school curriculum after the project’s official end date in March 2009.
Bewildered by the hazards of the 21st century, they decide to escape back to the past. The play ends with a perky disco number; the whole cast comes onstage in shiny black and red costumes to dance to pulsing music. Implicit is the contrast between the innocence of the performers, and the darkness of their subject matter.
Guram Tatishvili, age 13, is from Gori’s Public School Number 8. “I’ve been acting and doing plays for a long time. My teacher chose me for that reason. I didn’t know much about the topic before I did the play. I wanted the opportunity to explain it to other kids.”
Invited audiences came from schools all over the affected areas.
Young writers also created poems about safety; the most eloquent have been compiled for distribution. Marika Baliashvili won first prize. The 18-year-old from Ruisi village says, “I didn’t think about writing a poem until they announced the competition.” Marika’s long poem is about a boy and a girl, walking together in the sunlight. They spot something unknown, a greenish metallic object on their path, and the girl is impelled to touch it, though her friend warns her: “Stay away.”
It is an unexploded remnant of the war. Her touch proves fatal.
Marika says, “I chose this story because it’s close to young people, and easy to understand. I heard the true story at an IDP shelter that I visited with my school.”
She reflects: “Young people don’t really feel the danger. This program is very useful in educating young people about the actuality of danger. I was happy to contribute.”
During the war, Marika’s home village was not bombed, but Russian planes dropped explosives nearby, killing an elderly neighbor who was visiting another nearby town.
“For this reason, I wanted to have a way to express my pain,” Marika concludes. “This gave me the opportunity.”
Tamta Ivanishvili contributed translations and reporting to this feature