Saving Children from Mines
Unexploded ordnance and land mines put children’s lives at risk in conflict affected eastern Sri Lanka. At UNICEF supported clubs children educate children on what to do if they discover the explosive devices
By Jens Laerke BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka
– One Friday afternoon, Varatharaj Thinesh was squatting on the ground in the small village of Murakotanchenai in an eastern district of Batticaloa, idly digging in the dirt with a bottle. With nothing better to do, he half-heartedly followed a discussion between some uncles and aunts nearby, and was just going about being a regular 14-year-old schoolboy with no particular plans for the afternoon.
Then the bottle in his hand scraped the rubber corner of an anti-personnel land mine and he came within a hair’s breadth of losing life or limbs.
Now Thinesh sits at the very same spot educating friends from his Children’s Club and other local children on the risk of mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Thinesh is a child animator in a Mine Risk Education programme funded and coordinated by UNICEF in partnership with the Sri Lankan NGO Sarvodaya.
Thinesh was fortunate because he knew what to do when he realized he had accidentally unearthed a land mine which had floated into the Children’s Club with the heavy monsoon rain. He didn’t touch it, he didn’t run away, he didn’t panic – instead, he called on the grown-ups around so that they could alert the police and have it removed safely.
“Despite the mine I found, I do feel safe within the boundaries of the village because it has been cleared. But I don’t know what is outside”, says Thinesh.
Message of caution
Mines and UXO do not respect any political peace agreements – once mines are laid or ammunition fired, they pose a threat for years, sometimes decades, to come. Mine clearance accompanied by Mine Risk Education can therefore take credit for the decline in casualties over the past years: The number of deaths and injuries in Batticaloa District has gone down from a high point of 31 in 2000 to 2 casualties in 2005. In Sri Lanka as a whole, the number of casualties has declined from 167 to 30 over the same period.
“I am happy that I can teach children something that they know nothing about but really have to be aware of” says Thinesh, who finds that his young audience responds well to the education. The Kanimoli Children’s Club that Thinesh is member of is one of the 145 clubs in the 3 eastern district Batticaloa, Trincomalee, and Ampara affected by the war. In Batticaloa there are 40 clubs offering Mine Risk Education.
Today, Kanimoli has 60 members aged 6-17 years, but many more children from the area have already seen the educational mine risk programme. The program includes small drama pieces, with singing and dancing that engages children in the performance. It also raises awareness of the plight of children disabled by mines and UXO. First and foremost, however, it drums the message of caution into the young audience.
And caution is required in Murakotanchenai village which was deserted during the conflict, but re-populated after the ceasefire agreement in 2002. Next to the Children’s Club is an army camp, a classic indicator that mines and UXO most probably are lying around.
Despite the obvious danger, Thinesh, his parents, and four brothers and sisters came back to the village after the ceasefire. They had been displaced by the war for most of the 1990s.
“We found around 15 mines and UXO when we came back, one of them on our way to school. My parents knew that this is a dangerous area - but this is where our house is”, he explains before heading back to a group of some 30 children waiting in the club’s yard for the day’s programme.