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Minefield free at last !

© UNICEF Nepal /2007/ HLaurenge
children study brochure published by UNICEF as part of mine risk education in the most affected districts across the country

By- Rupa Joshi


 

Kathmandu, 28 June 2011:  As the monsoon clouds swirled over the top of Phulchowki hill, in the south western rim of the Kathmandu valley, two loud explosions rent the air.  Smoke billowed, and a cheer erupted from the guests assembled at the top of the 2700 m peak.  Nepal had now become free of minefields.  It is only the second country in Asia, following China, and ahead of 26 other landmine contaminated countries in the continent, to be declared free of minefields.

 

The Prime Minister, Mr. Jhala Nath Khanal, and the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Chhatra Man Singh Gurung, each pressed a switch to detonate the landmines. They were the last of 12,070 landmines planted by the Nepal Army in 53 locations throughout the country during the decade-long armed conflict to protect military installations and physical infrastructure such as communications and hydropower stations. The minefield in Phulchowki was laid around one of the critical telecommunication masts that guided aircraft navigation, amongst other key strategic functions.

 

Following the detonations, the Nepal Army was given the “Handover Certificate” by the United Nations Mine Action Team (UNMAT) confirming that the land has been cleared according to International Standards.

 

Declaring 'the sacred land of Nepal' as minefield free, the Prime Minister said "This is an important achievement under the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. I thank all concerned who were involved, especially the United Nations and its related agencies involved in this important task."

 

As part of the Comprehensive Peace Accord, signed in 2006, the Government and the Maoists had committed to identify and clear the landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other explosive remnants of war.

 

Although the stipulated time to 'mark, defuse, remove and destroy' these explosives was sixty days, clearance of minefields, and the stockpiles of IEDs took nearly four years. Deminers had to comply with international humanitarian standards, battle hostile terrain and inclement weather. The men and women in blue scoured the minefields inch by inch,down on their knees, measuring, prodding, digging, snipping, or using metal detectors, to clear single every mine laid nearly a decade ago. They demonstrated their painstaking 'manual' demining techniques to the guests of the minefield free event.

 

Set up in September 2008 with UNICEF and UNMAS as members, UNMAT supported the Nepal Army in the humanitarian demining of minefields.  Clearance began in October 2007 at a hydropower station, and in the last four years, the Nepal Army was able to clear more than 200,000 square metres of minefields and release over 5,300,000 square metres of safe land to the communities.  

© UNMAT/2011/ CSKarki
primeminister observes demining while being briefied by captain Dikshya Rajbhandari, site manager of the phulchowki minefield

Two years earlier over 52,000 IEDs, weighing 7 tonnes, collected across all Maoists' cantonment sites had been destroyed by the UN Mission in Nepal and the Maoist Army.

UNICEF's role

To tackle the hazard posed by mines and IEDs, as well as other explosive remnants of war that lay scattered in former clash sites and elsewhere across the country, UNICEF initiated an integrated risk education campaign in March 2004, when the armed conflict was at its peak, with the establishment of a Mine Risk Education Working Group. The group enlarged its scope in 2007 and became the ‘Mine Action Joint Working Group’, now chaired by the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction. Since 2007, this coordination body includes UN agencies, Government, Nepal Army and other security forces as well as ICRC, the Red Cross and other I/NGOs.
UNICEF's focus during and post insurgency has been on the establishment of an ongoing national victim information system and on mine risk education following a spurt in casualties from victim-activated explosions. "After the conflict we provided the Nepal Army with 14,000 hazard signs for their minefields and IED fields, and also trained 25,000 security personnel from the police, armed police and the army," said Mr. Will Parks, UNICEF Representative a.i.  "We have also worked consistently with communities, especially children, and the Ministry of Education to raise awareness of the risks of explosive devices, and provided training to MRE focal points from 70 districts.  We reached over one million school children from the most affected areas with MRE lessons. Now this task will be carried forward by the Ministry of peace and Reconstruction.”

Although Nepal is “minefield free”, incidents involving IED explosions continue to occur due to the remnants of war that litter the countryside in unknown locations, and also because numerous armed groups are still using IEDs as their main weapon. Since January 2006, when UNICEF helped initiate a comprehensive injury surveillance system, 474 casualties from victim-activated explosions have been reported, predominantly by IEDs.  More than half of the casualties were children. The latest victim, five days before the minefield free event, was 12-year-old Jeevan BK, a fourth-grader from far western hills of Nepal, who besides suffering from serious shrapnel injuries, lost all fingers of his right hand when an abandoned ‘pipe bomb’ he had picked up exploded in his hands.

Despite the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ IED contamination, the number of casualties in 'explosive' incidents has been on the decline in recent years, which the UN Resident Coordinator Mr. Robert Piper attributed to MRE, "More than any other single factor, it is arguably progress in the mine risk education that has led to the sharp reduction in the number of casualties over recent years, with a drop of 40 per cent from 2009 to 2010," said Mr. Piper. "I acknowledge the outstanding work of UNICEF and its partners to educate children and adults alike in mine risk education."

Almost all survivors from victim activated explosions like Jeevan BK have received adequate and timely medical care and benefited from rehabilitation services when needed. This support and other victim assistance services have been provided by the government, ICRC, Handicap International, UNICEF, Nepal Campaign to Ban Landmines, and other victim assistance related agencies.

Challenges ahead

Advocacy against the use of IEDs, risk education, and identification and clearance of scattered IEDs across the country is the next challenge for Nepal before it becomes a country free of explosives. 

UN officials at the minefield free event urged the government to become the 157th country to sign to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (APMBC).

"Nepal may be minefield free today, but it still cannot be declared a country free of landmines," said Mr. Richard Derieux, UNMAT Senior Technical Advisor.  "The Nepal Army still has anti-personnel landmines in its stock. It is only when these are also disposed that Nepal can truly become a "mine free country."

As the guests and dignitaries started to make their way down the Phulchowki hills, the team of blue-suited deminers posted at the site cheered and congratulated each other on a job completed.  Next to where they stood smiling was a pile of mine warning signs and notices.  They are no longer needed.  Nepal is finally minefield free!

 

 

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