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Bosnia and Herzegovina: UNICEF-sponsored campaign saves kids from landmines

© UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina 2005 / Bolton
Puppets of an anti-tank mine and a landmine are found guilty in "The Strange Trial"
By Matthew Bolton

Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina 2005: To squeals of derision, two scary-looking green puppets with sharp teeth and gruff voices plead their innocence to an incredulous judge. The judge asks the ‘jury’, an audience of children aged 5-11, if they find the puppets, representing an anti-tank mine and a grenade, guilty of hiding in the ground and killing people.

Having heard testimonies from a floppy yellow rabbit and an enormous bumblebee, the children chorus in unison “Da!” and a de-miner comes to take the offenders away. Seeing the children bouncing in their chairs and straining their hands in the air to answer questions on what they had seen, it is clear this was another successful performance of “The Strange Trial.”

The play, staged by The Genesis Project, a local NGO based in Banja Luka, is part of a UNICEF-sponsored campaign, “From Puppets to Empowerment.”

The campaign raises children’s awareness of the danger of the estimated 750,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) that have contaminated the country since the 1992-1995 war and have claimed over 4,800 casualties.

Mines are a threat to children’s right to life, enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  And mine risk education is in line with the UN General Assembly’s 2002 statement “A World Fit for Children,” to provide children with education, health, free access to information and protection from the horrors of armed conflict.

By June 2005, almost 100,000 primary children had seen Genesis puppet shows at school. UNICEF helped the Genesis Project synchronize the plays’ content with the Mine Risk Education policy of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre (BHMAC), the government agency that coordinates the response to landmines and UXO. The plays have matured alongside the Mine Risk Education – moving from a simple mine awareness message to incorporating small arms/light weapons and disability issues.

While observers may be surprised that such serious messages are delivered by mischievous puppets, Genesis staff say that this is an ideal way to engage children and help them retain the messages. Traditional mine risk education, often adapted from military briefings, can be sterile and dull for squirming youngsters with short attention spans. In contrast, puppets spark imagination and creativity. The Genesis Project also finds that children are less scared of disturbing messages when they come from the mouths of puppets.

Life-Saving Thespians

When Genesis staff re-visited a school in Lopare, northeastern Bosnia, they were surprised when the vice-principal, who had initially been very skeptical of the show, break down in tears and thank them for saving the lives of her own children.

The woman told them how, a few months after the performance, her son and daughter had visited the home the family had lost during the war, without her knowledge. Exploring the destroyed house, the two youngsters spotted a mine. Freezing in her tracks, the daughter told her younger brother everything she had learned in the Genesis Project presentation. They then acted exactly as the characters in the puppet show had instructed them to do, and were unharmed.

© UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina 2005 / Bolton
A happy audience member: a girl watches "The Strange Trial" at a school in Banja Luka

From puppets to peers

In 2004, with support from UNICEF, the puppet theatre format expanded into children’s TV, with an entire series warning children of the dangers of mines, UXO and small arms. Video tapes of the programmes, plus resource packs, were distributed to schools.

The next stage is to reach older children, aged eight to12 years, who are not as captivated by puppets. But there is no question of returning to traditional, top-down mine awareness briefings. Children rarely recall such information, or know how to apply it in real life situations. In one heavily contaminated village, children knew they were forbidden to play in certain areas, but did not know why.

UNICEF and Genesis prefer peer education. Over the last two years, around 20 students in each of 40 schools have been trained to educate their peers on the dangers of mines and other UXO.

Those selected have been empowered by the whole experience.  Simo, an 11 year old boy from Derventa in the north, was initially enthusiastic about joining activities. But he would then withdraw, scared of failure. The other children were unimpressed. However, Genesis Project staff had faith and persuaded him to stay. The workshops helped him develop his self-esteem, and soon the other children were encouraging him to persevere when he found things difficult. By the end of the project, Simo was so confident that he led his group’s presentation of the mine risk message to the other pupils in his class. 

Mainstreaming Mine Risk Education

The Genesis Project cannot be in all schools, at all times. So, it has trained 1,200 teachers, with UNICEF funding, to run mine risk education throughout the school year.

Examining the school curricula, Genesis Project staff found that most pupils receive only one class  on mine awareness each year – nowhere near enough. So the Project aims to mainstream mine risk education across the curriculum.

Workshops for teachers give them the basic message and sample lesson plans, with brainstorming sessions on how to  integrate mine awareness into all classes. For example, a maths teacher might ask students to calculate the dimensions of fictional minefields, while also conveying the danger posed by the real ones. One art teacher asked her students to draw what they associated with mines.  A boy drew the solar system; each of the planets had a smiley face, apart from earth, which was crying and surrounded by yellow mine warning tape.

From the classroom to real life

Mainstreaming the message helps students make the connection between the risk of mines and their own lives.

One teacher from a school in Paklenica Donja, in northern Bosnia, overheard children shouting in the playground a few days after a lesson on mine risk.  Running to see what was happening, he found several students blocking the way of two scrap metal collectors who wanted to scavenge in a minefield behind the school.

“The teachers explained to us,” they shouted, “that not only the person that enters that field is in danger, but everyone in the schoolyard as well.”

The two men retreated to their car, followed by chants of “You have no right to kill us, you have no right to kill us.”

Engaging the Community

Mines affect entire communities and BHMAC estimates that as many as 40% of minefields are as yet unidentified. So Genesis has launched Participatory Community Mapping Workshops in heavily mined areas with UNICEF funding. Parents and teachers look at official minefield maps and are asked to add information by drawing maps of their own.  Any new information is passed on to BHMAC. Communities also identify those at greatest risk and draw up plans to manage the mine problem – incorporating education, victim assistance and priority areas for de-mining.

For more information:

Nela Kacmarcik, Communication Officer, UNICEF Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tel: (+ 387 33) 66 01 18, email:



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