Focus on landmine education for children

As hundreds of thousands of refugees return to areas of Afghanistan that were once battlefields, one of the most important and life-saving programmes in the war-damaged country today is landmine education, particularly for children.

"Our main concern with children is that they have been living with the problem for so long that they have almost become oblivious to it," David Edwards, chief of operations for the UN's mine-action programme for Afghanistan (MAPA), told IRIN in the capital, Kabul. "Incorporating landmine education into the
curriculum is essential," he said.

With more than 800 sq km left to clear, of which 410 sq km are high priority, Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country in the world. The former front-line areas in the northern and central regions contain the greatest concentrations of landmines.

A large quantity of unexploded ordnance (UXO) remains from the US-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan. It also poses a huge threat to innocent children.

There are no detailed statistics of victims, but according to the UN's mine-action programme, landmines and UXO cause about 150 to 300 casualties per month, a big strain to on the already overburdened hospital system.

A landmine-education programme being operated by Save the Children-US (SCF-US) in Kabul is saving lives by reaching out to thousands of children. Established in 1996, its aim is to educate young people on what the devices look like and stop them from handling these if they come into contact with them. "Children are playing out in the fields and streets, and they come across these devices every day. But many think they are toys," Sultan Aziz, the training team leader for SCF in Afghanistan, told IRIN in Kabul.

Up to 10 children take part in sessions held at schools, where NGO trainers or teachers use charts, pictures and board and memory games to show youngsters what to avoid. The children also take part in a play where they have to make decisions on what to do if they see a landmine or pieces of UXO.

"I didn't know what a landmine was or what it looked like," Nilam, aged 13, told IRIN at the Robia High School in Karte-ye Parvan District of Kabul Province. "They show us what these explosives look like. Now we know how dangerous they are, we will not touch them," she added.

The project is up and running across the country including the southern province of Kandahar, Jalalabad in the east, Mazar-e Sharif, Meymaneh and Sar-e Pol in the north. "We are also training other NGOs to spread the message to children," Aziz said.

Under the Taliban in 2001, SCF-US educated 21,792 boys and 13,139 girls in Kabul city. So far this year, 3,733 boys and 3,868 girls have been educated since the programme was resumed in the capital. One of the most effective ways of spreading the message has been through community volunteers. "There are many
children who are not be attending school, so this is the best way to get the message across to them," Aziz observed.

Teachers receive four days of training on the subject from SCF-US staff before they can start to educate children on landmines and UXO. The community volunteers are trained for two days before they can carry out sessions. "We expect the children to be informed at least once a week," he said.

During the Taliban era, the number of community volunteers was increased, as this was the only way to get the message across to girls, but the NGO resumed teacher training after the fall of the regime. In total, 19 schools, 142 teachers and 188 school principals have been trained so far this year.

However, its not just landmines and UXO that are endangering the lives of children. According to Aziz, there were some recent incidents where devices were planted near schools. "We have been told that there are pens which contain explosives left outside the school buildings," he explained, adding that the government had broadcast special television announcements warning people of the dangers.

Since the fall of the Taliban girls have been attending school, some conservative Afghans resent this. "We've been told that oppositionists who want to disrupt the education have planted these devices." he aded.

"I'm going to tell all of my friends about this session and warn them of the dangers of touching strange objects," Mohsena, a teenage student, told IRIN.

Staff at the school believe that this method of educating children has been very effective. "Some families don't have access to television or radio, so this is the best way to get the message across," Rowzia Nasiri, assistant principal of
the Robia high school, told IRIN. "We hold a session at our school every morning where we warn and remind children of the danger of landmines and unexploded ordnance," she added, saying that this was the best way to save lives.

Afghanistan is where the UN first became involved in supporting the creation and development of the MAPA. The signing of the Geneva Accords in April 1988, and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, led many to believe that warfare had come to an end, that peace would prevail. Optimists believed the rehabilitation of social services and infrastructure would begin.

One of the most important commitments made by the new Afghan government earlier this year was to prevent further laying of landmines. On 30 July, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah signed the Antipersonnel Mine Ban Convention. The interim government subsequently completed its accession to the Antipersonnel
Mine Ban Treaty by depositing the Instrument of Accession on 11 September at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, children at the Robia High School, such as 12-year-old, Mina were grateful for the being made aware of the dangers of landmines and UXO. "I hope we never come into contact with these horrible devices," she said.