Saving lives and limbs through mine clearance and mine-risk education in Nepal
By Ashma Shrestha Basnet and John Brittain
GULMI, Nepal, 21 July 2009 – In the scorching midday heat, the de-miners of the Nepalese Army are busy clearing mines at Wamitaksarin, in the country’s Gulmi district. Wearing heavy safety jackets and helmets, the soldiers have worked incessantly throughout the early morning.
They remain hyper-alert. One small mistake can kill.
Landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the remnants of a decade-long civil conflict in Nepal, and they continue to take the lives and limbs of many people here.
Since the end of the conflict in 2006, more than 200 people have been killed or injured by landmines and other explosive devices. Children made up more than 60 per cent of the 73 casualties in 2008, giving Nepal one of the highest child casualty rates from victim-activated explosions in the world.
Yet all of these tragic accidents could have been prevented by greater mine-risk awareness and mine-clearance efforts.
Peace agreement mandate
During the conflict in Nepal, the army planted landmines in over 50 locations, and more than 300 IED fields were laid by the army and police forces. At the same time, Maoist armed groups produced unknown numbers of IEDs, which pose a continued threat across the country.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed three years ago mandated that all parties provide necessary information on the whereabouts of IEDs, and that they defuse, remove and destroy these devices.
The Government of Nepal, with support from UN Mine Action Team (UNMAT, an inter-agency group that includes UNICEF), is working to prevent further harm from unexploded ordnance.
Clearing the mines
The Nepalese Army and UNMAT have been working to destroy anti-personnel landmines over the past two years. A total of 122 de-miners have been trained to International Mine Action Standards, and so far 17 minefields have been cleared.
“We are giving top priority to de-mining in the view of the safety of the locals,” said Brigadier General Dhani Das Karki, who heads the army’s Engineering Directorate.
“De-activating mines is a difficult process, as they can migrate due to rain and landslides,” he added. “It is a challenging and risky job.”
Along with mine clearance, the army and police – along with the Red Cross and local non-governmental organizations – are conducting mine-risk education (MRE) for civilians living in contaminated areas. With assistance from UNMAT and the International Committee of the Red Cross, they are raising awareness through leaflets, radio and TV broadcasts, and education campaigns.
“Most children are not able to recognize [IEDs], as they do not resemble bombs in appearance,” said UNMAT Programme Manager Steve Robinson. “The more people receive mine-risk education, the more they report on the existence of IEDs – and thus we will be able to save more lives and limbs.”
UNMAT and the Mine Action Joint Working Group have supported training for over 400 emergency MRE contacts in 68 districts. And UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education to systematically include MRE in school activities in the 20 most mine-affected districts.
“With the clearance, survivor assistance and MRE activities actively underway throughout the country, Nepal is already fulfilling several provisions of the Mine Ban Treaty [Ottawa Convention] and the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the two international treaties addressing these issues at the global level,” said Mr. Robinson.
“The government needs to sign these treaties and show the world Nepal’s commitment to ending the use of indiscriminate weapons, and to making its land safe for its people,” he noted.
Added the UN Resident Coordinator in Nepal, Robert Piper: “Landmines are the unfinished business of the peace process.”