Explosives experts are clearing Malian villages of weapons left over from the recent conflict. The weapons and explosive devices have killed or injured around 100 civilians - half of them children - so far this year in the country’s central and northern regions, areas seized by Islamist rebels in 2012 and later targeted by international forces.
Earlier this month, a child was killed in Konna area, in central Mali, while he was handling unexploded ordnance (UXO). Four other civilians were killed when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in the northern Kidal region, according to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).
Experts have surveyed 257 villages in Mopti, Segou, Timbuktu and Gao regions. Forty of the villages have been found to be contaminated with remnant weapons. More than 400 UXO and some 6,500 pieces of small arms ammunition have been cleared in those regions, said Marc Vaillant, a programme officer with UNMAS.
“More contaminated and dangerous areas will undoubtedly be discovered as survey operations gradually progress,” Vaillant told IRIN, explaining that the weapons jeopardized the safe return of hundreds of thousands of people who were forced from their homes during the crisis.
“ERW [explosive remnants of war], IEDs and landmines are adversely affecting livelihoods, freedom of movement and economic recovery, as well as the safe deployment of national and international forces, and extension of state authority,” he said.
Rise in ERW injuries
Mali’s latest crisis has caused a sharp rise in ERW injuries and deaths. Between 1999 and 2011, a total of 33 mine or ERW casualties were reported, and all of them occurred in 2006, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.
The crisis was triggered by a coup in March 2012, which was followed by the seizure of northern territory by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants. Even after a French-led intervention dislodged the Islamists from the region in January 2013, insecurity, hunger and crippled public services have continued to prevent a return to normalcy for many northern residents.
Abandoned mortars, artillery shells, rockets, grenades, bullets and aircraft bombs are also preventing the return to normalcy. Although the bulk of UXO is due to the recent fighting, there are also dangers posed by anti-tank mines along the Mali-Algeria border that predate the latest conflict, according to UNMAS.
Timbuktu trader Assaleh Maiga told IRIN that he saw two children killed and one severely injured by an explosive device they were playing with in April.
“Everybody knows that the rebels [abandoned weapons] in the town and the surrounding areas. The French and Malian [troops] found a lot of intact explosive devices,” said Maiga. “Since seeing those children, I am very careful about my movements. I have stopped travelling a lot because I’d rather die of other causes than an anti-personnel mine. It’s so brutal.”
Herder Ahmadou Sidibé said he has also witnessed deaths caused by these devices. In one incident, four soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit an explosive device. In another, a young man was killed by a grenade he was handling.
“I am worried that I or my animals may step on an explosive device. I don’t move around a lot now with the animals. My neighbour who is a farmer has virtually stopped farming since seeing the devastation caused by the explosives,” Sidibé said.
UNMAS launched its operation in Mali soon after the French intervention in January. Much of its UXO clearance has been in Mopti region in central Mali and in the northern regions of Timbuktu and Gao.
Vaillant said UNMAS would soon move to Kidal, where the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a separatist rebel group, is largely in control.
In addition to the ordnance clearance, residents of major conflict-affected regions have been receiving education on the dangers of explosive devices. Handicap International launched a risk education programme in November 2012 and began decontamination operations five months later.
Benoit Darrieux, Handicap International’s head of mission in Mali, said the organization has started seeing changes in behaviour, indicating people have a better understanding of the risks related to UXO and abandoned weapons.
“Civilian population are more aware of the risks and dangers posed by explosives remnants of war, unexploded ordinance and small arms and light weapons in the conflict affected areas. A number of people, especially in the rural areas where people have a lower access to schools and/or information, do not know what behaviours they should adopt regarding the threats these weapons pose,” Darrieux told IRIN. “People are now more sensitized, and contribute to data collection by reporting about UXO, unlike before.”
The risk education, which is spearheaded by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), includes information about how to identify UXO, common types of abandoned weapons and munitions, warnings not to tamper with the objects, and instructions to report to authorities whenever residents stumble upon the weapons, Darrieux explained.
Residents have been engaging in small, informal discussions after risk education sessions, and some residents are explaining the situation to others, which shows that the message is getting across, said Moussa Sidibé, a child protection specialist with UNICEF in Mali.
“Some people come to you after the sessions to tell you that they have ERW, such as bullets, at home and ask for help to dispose them,” Sidibé said. To date, 217,134 people have been sensitized about the explosives dangers, according to UNICEF.
But he also noted hurdles to keeping people vigilant, including difficulty reaching nomadic communities, lack of finance and staff in many areas, difficulty collecting data in regions that remain insecure, and the slow pace of ERW clearance.
Handicap International’s Darrieux explained that that many of those injured have not received care beyond their initial treatment in hospitals and health centres. Health services in northern Mali were severely affected by the conflict, which forced medical staff to flee to safer areas.
“We give physiotherapy and psychosocial help because the impact of injuries resulting from ERW is both physical and psychological,” he said.
The extent of ERW contamination in Mali is not known, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, and ERW clearance has been hindered by a lack of experience among the country’s demining personnel, the harsh climate in contaminated areas, and the lack of mine maps and sufficient resources.
UNMAS is training 60 Malian troops on explosive ordnance disposal. It has also trained some 3,000 UN mission military and civilian personnel on “explosives awareness.”