(May 31, 2011) (Benghazi, Libya) – On the floor of a cargo hold in a ship evacuating casualties from the Libyan city of Misrata, 14-year-old Ayman Abdulatif was mute on his makeshift hospital bed. He had no hands, and his wrists were wrapped in heavy gauze. Ayman’s cousin, Mahmoud, was nearby, under a thick blanket that hid his own devastating injuries. Doctors said he has lost his genitalia, and has severe damage to his abdomen.
A desolate father, Ali Emuhammad, was next to them and displayed on a mobile phone the cause of the tragedy: a picture of yellow and green cluster bombs, similar to the ones that Ayman and Mohammad were playing with two weeks ago. He said neither Ayman nor Mahmoud understood the danger of picking up unexploded ordnance (UXO).
"I know that they are dangerous, but I didn't know what they looked like,” he explained, speaking of the cluster bombs. “If the children knew what it looked like, like through a TV program, or a poster, it would have prevented this accident.”
A lack of awareness on the dangers of UXO is a serious threat to civilians in Libya, relief workers say. After months of heavy fighting between government soldiers and anti-Gaddafi fighters, parts of Libya are littered with remnants of the ongoing conflict.
Internews is examining critical information gaps and available local news sources as part of an assessment of information needs in in Libya. Internews recently joined a multi-agency assessment mission to Misrata, coordinated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
At the time of the assessment, many residents were emerging onto streets now thought safe after weeks of violence. Displaced people were returning to previously abandoned homes. But despite breaks from intense fighting, dangers remain.
Though numbers are difficult to quantify, experts say Ajdabia, Misrata, and parts of Benghazi, Al Beyda and Tobruk are estimated to have large numbers of UXOs. There are already at least 49 cases of people who have been injured or killed so far, according to reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“This is our main concern for the safety of the civilian population,” said Lejla Susic, a Weapons Elimination Delegate for the ICRC. “Everywhere where the fighting is still going on, there will be a UXO problem.”
The ICRC is among the groups removing UXOs from Ajdabia, and an assessment of UXO locations in Misrata is currently underway.
The ICRC and Handicap International are conducting outreach campaigns to audiences in Benghazi and Ajdabia to warn them on the dangers of UXO. Both organizations disseminate messages on Benghazi radio stations.
But elsewhere in Libya, particularly in areas where fighting has recently ceased, awareness campaigns have not started, so the risks may be much higher. In Misrata, local media outlets like Radio Misrata were not yet circulating information on the dangers of unexploded ordnances.
Children like Ayman and Mahmoud are particularly at risk.
"Children are beginning to go outside and play, but they're just not aware," said Rebecca Fordham, a Communications and Advocacy Officer at UNICEF. She said there needs to be information campaigns to to spread awareness on the dangers of these explosives.
Ayman’s father hoped information programs would prevent additional tragedies from occurring.
“[They] should be available in Misrata now,” he said.