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In the aftermath of conflict, Mali's children remain at risk

© UNICEF Mali/2013/Dicko
The life of Mamadou changed forever when his cousins brought a "strange object" back to the house. The 12-year-old lost three fingers when the object exploded.

By Ismail Maiga and Cindy Cao

For children living in conflict-affected areas of northern Mali, explosive remnants of war are a life-threatening danger hiding in plain sight.

GAO, Mali, 7 August 2013 - The life of 12-year-old Mamadou changed forever when his cousins brought home a "strange object".

"He wasn’t at home that day," recalls his mother. "It was his cousins who brought a strange object back to the house."

Mamadou lives in Gao region in northern Mali, which was severely affected by conflict when separatist rebels took control in 2012 and proclaimed an independent state. The French military intervention in January 2013 led to the liberation of the area, but also brought with it intense fighting.

With a constant cough and a drawn look, Mamadou likes nothing better than to curl up next to his mother in the backyard to rest. But he’s come a long way. In May 2013, his life was turned upside down.

Mamadou, curious about what his cousins had brought home that day, approached the uncovered device left behind in the yard.

Soon after that, an ear-splitting blast was heard.

Children at risk

Although they do not necessarily always kill, explosive remnants of war can cause irreversible damage. How does a boy deal with war-related violence when he is only 12 years of age? How does a child understand the danger of something he or she has never seen?

As a result of recent conflict in Mali, unexploded grenades, mortars, rockets, shells, cartridges and even small arms can be found on the ground – still active, still able to do serious harm – in the country’s northern regions.

Because of their natural curiosity and the fact that they often move around unsupervised, children are unaware of the hazards and are most at risk from unexploded ordnance (UXO). Since 2012, 76 victims have been registered, 40 of them children, including six who died.

Returning to normal life

Mamadou lost three fingers in the accident and required extensive surgery. He is one of 15 children benefiting from the medical care and financial assistance of a UNICEF-supported rapid response programme for children affected by the conflict. This programme is implemented in collaboration with local partners in Gao region, which has suffered the greatest number of victims.

Far from fully recovered, Mamadou is still under medical supervision, although he is reluctant to go back to hospital. The memory of the clinic where he spent an entire month has left him with a bitter taste. His wounds are not only physical but also psychological, and the idea of further surgery terrifies him. The explosion has left him in constant fear, and nightmares haunt his sleep.

In addition to medical care and food, psychological support is being provided to Mamadou, so that he can find the strength to overcome his suffering and return to a normal life.

As part of an effort to inform families and communities of the risks of UXO, UNICEF has trained 47 educators in Gao from various sectors – health, administration, NGOs and media.

It will take time to rid the region of UXO and the dangers posed by explosive remnants of war, but in the meantime it is still possible to prevent more accidents like the one that changed Mamadou’s life forever.



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