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Polly Brennan: Life in a minefield

Polly Brennan's understanding of the landmine problem does not come from reading reports. Until 1998 Ms. Brennan ran what was then the only humanitarian mine-action programme in northern Iraq, one of only a handful in the world.

Being in and around minefields, living in mine-affected areas, talking to the villagers and going out with the deminers, she saw at first-hand how mines and other explosive remnants of war devastate families and communities. Now working as UNICEF's Global Landmines Coordinator in New York, Brennan says she draws on this knowledge every day.

Much of her experience in the field was, of course, disturbing.

"One day I went to visit one of our injured deminers in hospital," she recalls. "I took him sweets. He had been wheeled out into the sun, and a whole bunch of kids clustered around us. I handed the bag of sweets to a boy of perhaps 10 years of age. But he had two bandaged stumps for hands, and so he couldn't take the sweets from me." Ms. Brennan was by then no stranger to death and injury, but this isn't the sort of sight you get used to.

"Children are at risk due to their curiosity and their activities – herding livestock, fetching water and so on," she explains. "They are more likely to die if injured, and less likely to have access to rehabilitation programmes, schools, and other services if they survive… Increasingly we are seeing figures that show that more than 50 per cent of those killed by other unexploded ordnance – apart from landmines – are children. This is due to tampering, either out of curiosity, or as an economic activity: unexploded ordnance is salvaged for its scrap metal and explosive content.

A key role

In 1998, UNICEF took on the lead role in the United Nations for education about mine risk, as well as key work in advocacy and helping survivors and Ms. Brennan was recruited to develop UNICEF's strategy on mines. There are now 28 UNICEF mine-action programmes around the world, including, most recently, in Iraq. In addition, UNICEF provides a 'flying team' of experienced mine-action consultants who can provide technical support to field offices at short notice.

Afghanistan, where the leftover ordnance of a succession of conflicts continues to maim and kill children, provides an example of UNICEF's approach to education on the issue. Games are used to teach children about the dangers and what they must do to avoid them.

Despite the horrific and arbitrary violence of leftover mines, Ms. Brennan doesn't see this as a different kind of issue from those with which she has previously been involved, which include women's issues, domestic violence, housing, aboriginal rights and trade unions.

"For me, this represents a continuum of social-justice issues," she says.

But people still ask her whether she is ex-army, like most people in mine action. Polly Brennan has her answer ready. "No," she tells them. "I'm ex-peace movement."




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