DAKAR, 19 March 2013 (IRIN) - Air and ground battles have left Mali's central and northern regions littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO), seriously endangering the lives of children and the return of displaced people.
Mali plunged into chaos in early 2012, and the intervention by French forces in January 2013 to staunch a southwards advance by militant Islamists intensified combat and caused further population displacement.
Of the 53 people injured by the left-over explosives since April 2012, 38 were children as of March 2013. Five children and two adults have also been killed since then, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"We are strongly advising people not to return to their homes as the security conditions have not been met. [Clearing of] landmines [and UXO] would be one of the conditions for people to return. We urge them to remain where they are," said Eduardo Cue, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) public information officer in Mali.
Cue said unconfirmed reports showed that around 250 people were returning to their homes every week. "The road is open and there are buses from Bamako to Mopti area, but it's a minimal flow. Local and regional government officials have not returned and so there is no government administration in those areas. Services have not been resumed," he told IRIN.
An estimated 431,000 people (260,665 IDPs and 170,313 refugees) have been displaced and 4.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Abandoned mortars, artillery shells, rockets, grenades, bullets and aircraft bombs appear to be concentrated in the towns of Diabaly, Douentza, Konna and Gao.
"They [UXO] are all over the place; on the streets, close to schools and health centres," Hector Calderon, UNICEF's head of communication in Mali, told IRIN. "Children are more susceptible because they run around, play and can pick up the left-over ordnance."
Northern Mali was overrun by armed separatist Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants following the government overthrow in March 2012. Although the Islamist militants have been driven out of much of the region, humanitarian access remains difficult and security is uncertain.
Thirteen-year old Sidiki described how heavy fighting damaged his school in Konna.
"Soldiers were shooting missiles right there behind the school building. It was so noisy. I was scared. I thought bullets would reach us," said Sidiki in comments to UNICEF. "We ran away. Everyone ran and went home.
"When we returned we found our school damaged. There are big holes in the wall. There were [munitions] everywhere in the courtyard of the school, all kinds. small and big."
"Explosive remnants of war are a direct threat to people's lives and limbs, but also adversely affect livelihoods and disrupt daily routines. The presence of such dangerous items is an obvious source of fear and distress that prevents affected communities from resuming normal lives," said Marc Vaillant, programme officer for the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) in Mali.
In December, UNICEF estimated that at least 100,000 children were at risk of being harmed by UXO. However, since the escalation of hostilities with the arrival of the French-led intervention that number has doubled.
"Civilians feel the threat of these explosives," said Calderon. "One mother was afraid to bring her child to a health centre because she was scared the health centre was contaminated with ammunition. It's clear that the left-over ammunition has impacted the lives of these communities."
Although the bulk of UXO is due to the recent fighting, there are also dangers of anti-tank mines in northern Mali along the border with Algeria that predate the current conflict, according to UNMAS.
Improvised explosive devices that can be triggered remotely, car and suicide bombs, insecure ammunition storage, and the widespread proliferation of small and light weapons, are among the other security threats, said UNMAS.
"We have a duty to address this through the swift deployment of survey and clearance teams and by providing risk education to those in need," Vaillant told IRIN. UNMAS has deployed survey teams to Mopti and Timbuktu regions and has trained 30 members of the Malian army in UXO disposal.
Recently French forces, now battling Islamist rebels alongside Chadian troops in the Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border, discovered [ http://news.yahoo.com/french-mali-troops-recover-explosives-gao-13592812... ] some 800kg of explosive materials in a house in Gao city, where the remnants of militant forces last month staged retaliatory attacks, including suicide bombings, after being driven out of the city.