A three goal draw helps convey a three message lifesaver - mine risk education in Sudan
By Nagui Kodsi, UNICEF Communication Officer
Khartoum, 19 March 2007. Under a scorching sun, and amidst the dust of a makeshift soccer pitch, the gathering crowd of some 800 spectators in Al Salam camp for internally displaced persons roars as the third goal, an equalizer, hits the back of the net. The game will have to go to a penalty shoot-out, but that will just mean more entertainment. And for the estimated 40,000 young people and children living in Al Salam camp, displaced during the 21 year civil war in Sudan, an opportunity for entertainment is something to be cherished.
Today’s match, organized by the multi-actor Special Information Campaign on Mine Awareness, is part of a broader social communication programme supported by UNICEF. Behind the shouting and laughing, and the friendly competition of the game, lies a more serious message. Many of the young people living at Al Salam will soon be returning to their places of origin in the southern states of Sudan – and once there, will be confronted by another legacy of the war; landmines.
The UN classifies Sudan as one of the ten countries in the world most affected by landmines. Two years after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought the civil war between north and south to an end, landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) remain a threat to life. As the UN aims to assist an estimated 630,000 Southern Sudanese to return home this year alone, the need for effective mine risk education is clear. Today’s event at Al Salam is just one part of UNICEF’s contribution to that vital task.
The threat of landmines in Sudan lurks under the bridges where children shelter from the sun, hidden amongst the firewood that children collect, on the edge of the road that children walk along on their way to school. UNICEF’s simple advice to children is “Keep away, don’t touch, report”. These three life-saving messages are repeated throughout the day at Al Salam, and the messages appear to be resonating with the young audience.
“It was impressive to see how every child was keen on learning the messages, reading the brochures, posters and listening to the discussions.” says Sharif Baaser, UNICEF’s Child Protection officer leading the mine risk education programme in North Sudan. “The only way to reduce the danger from landmines is through teaching children and the community on the best ways to recognize and respond to that danger. And that starts with helping children know what landmines look like, the importance of avoiding them and the need to report anything they may find to adults”.
Global experience has shown that children learn more easily if the process is entertaining. Global experience has shown that children learn more easily if the process is entertaining. Events such as the sports matches at Al Salam camp bring young people together, and enable messages to be disseminated in an interesting and colorful way. Mine risk education becomes a community-based activity; here at Al Salam, camp residents had supported the young players with training, providing sports kit as well as being there on the day to encourage their children in the match. The game itself saw a team from amongst the camp residents take on a squad made up of humanitarian workers – an important bridge-builder, that builds confidence in the work of the agencies in the camp, and helps to strengthen the value of the landmine messages.
“Effective communication is built on trust,” says Sharif Baaser. “If people are to really trust in the messages about landmines, then they also have to have faith in those providing the messages. Events like Landmine awareness messages like this really help bring the humanitarian community and the resident population closer together, and that creates an opening for us to sit down and discuss these more serious issues.”
And everywhere one looks, those messages are prominent. The two soccer teams are wearing shirts that proclaim a series of warnings – “Stay away from unknown objects”, “Watch out for markings, signs or clues that indicate mines and UXO”, “When traveling make sure that you always stay on commonly used roads”. In the crowd, leaflets with simple pictorial messages on mine awareness are circulated widely. Teams of volunteers have organized entertainment through comedy shows, songs and competitions through which they have communicated the campaign messages, attracting not only the attention of the children but women, men and community leaders.
In the coming days and weeks, many of these internally displaced persons will pack their belongings, and climb aboard the buses and trucks to take them back home. For some of the children, it will be a journey to a place they have never seen. They may have never witnessed the conflict that forced their parents to flee to Khartoum, nor will they have experienced the hardware of war, much of which remains a threat today.
“Nothing is worse than a landmine, hidden to kill at any time, at times of peace as well as war,” says Howayda, a volunteer from a local NGO, Jasmar. “Unfortunately children are the most affected by landmines out of curiosity, anxiousness to play, run and explore life”“Unfortunately children are the most affected by landmines out of curiosity, anxiousness to play, run and explore life”.
Hopefully, the messages being disseminated today will ensure that such curiosity and sense of adventure can continue without risk to life or limb, and that the young Sudanese preparing to return home will be able to look forward to a safe transition to their new life.
For now, there is something else to celebrate. The camp residents’ team has just knocked in the deciding penalty and are preparing to receive a champion’s cup from UNICEF. Another success, to match that of the mine awareness day.