In Swat Valley, Mine/UXOs Risk Education encourages safer behaviours to reduce the risk to precious lives
By: Shandana Aurangzeb Durrani
SWAT, Pakistan, 14 June 2010 –- “I will never forget that day when I tried to force open that small shiny object with a stone. It exploded in my face, injuring me and my friend Salahuddin,” recalls ten-year-old Dawood from Mingora, the chief town of Swat District in north-western Pakistan. “I had found it on my way to school and was very excited,” he adds. “During the lunch break I showed it to Salahuddin who suggested we should break it open with a stone to see what was inside.” Although his physical wounds have healed, the emotional trauma remains visible in Dawood’s eyes as he tells his story.
“I will never forget that day when I tried to force open that small shiny object with a stone. It exploded in my face, injuring me and my friend
“There are many such cases, especially in areas which are contaminated with unexploded ordinances (UXOs) due to intense fighting between the Taliban and military personnel,” says Shahid Khan. “Peace has returned to Swat, and so have the people. But a lot of work needs to be done as explosive remnants of war still remain and are a grave threat to the lives of innocent people, especially children.” Mr Khan is affiliated with SPADO, UNICEF’s implementing partner which has provided Mine Risk Education in crisis-hit areas of Malakand Division since September 2009.
During the summer of 2009, fighting between government forces and militants displaced about 1.4 million people from Malakand Division, an area which includes Swat, Buner and Dir Districts. As the area was pacified people began returning to rebuild their lives. However, landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), aerial bombardment and mortar shells had been heavily used during the fighting, and danger still remains from UXOs.
Mine/UXOs Risk Education (MRE) plays a critical part in saving lives and protecting from injuries by helping people living, working and travelling in contaminated areas to identify landmines and UXO, and providing means to prevent and respond to their presence. Fazal Muhammad, principal of Qambar High School, fully understands the importance of making children and communities aware of the dangers. “Sessions in schools are very important,” he says emphatically. “Since our school opened in November 2009, I have encouraged my students to attend the sessions. This has been very beneficial as twice after the opening of the school, IEDs were planted outside the school walls. The students were able to identify and report the incident and we responded immediately with no damage to school students and property.”
Locals work with communities to safeguard against explosive remnants of war
As the lead United Nations agency working on MRE globally, UNICEF understands the critical need for such initiatives in areas affected by conflict. In Pakistan, where the government and NGO capacity to deal with this issue is limited, UNICEF has initiated and is leading an MRE Working Group to develop a concerted and effective response at the grassroots level.
With funding from the Government of Japan, UNICEF is promoting safer behaviour amongst the population, especially children, through education and training, dissemination of information, education and communication materials and community mobilization to reduce risk from mines, unexploded ordnances and abandoned munitions. So far, more than 225,000 people including students, teachers, community elders, religious leaders, government officials and NGO staff have been trained through nearly 3,000 MRE sessions conducted in schools, mosques, community centres and government offices. In addition, contaminated areas and victims have been identified and a database is being maintained. Victims are also helped to access social services for rehabilitation and social integration. Community and healthcare workers in affected areas are being trained in emergency first aid to respond effectively to landmine and other traumatic injuries.
As more crisis-hit areas are declared safe, especially in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan, however, there is an urgent need to expand MRE education to these areas. Whilst UNICEF and its partners at the global and local levels remain committed to safeguarding innocent people from the deadly legacies of the crisis, sustained and united support is required to ensure that people who have weathered conflict and displacement can rebuild their lives without fear.