Two-thirds of victims of left-over munitions in Mali are children

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BAMAKO/GENEVA, 5 March 2013 – UNICEF is warning of a rising threat to communities in Central and Northern Mali from ammunition and explosive devices. Since April 2012, 60 victims of explosive remnants of war have been reported , with children making up two thirds of the total. The level of risk is likely to further increase when displaced families start returning home to areas that have seen the worst of the conflict.

Last December, UNICEF estimated that at least 100,000 children and parents were exposed to the dangers of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Northern Mali. This estimate was made before the military intervention, which has involved air strikes and ground operations since January. Approximately 200,000 children from conflict-affected areas in Central and Northern Mali are at risk of injury or death due to explosive remnants of war (ERW), according to UNICEF.

“Children were playing with a device in my courtyard. I thought there was no risk. I threw it on a stone and it exploded”, said 19 year-old Amadou, a UXO survivor from Mopti who lost the finger on his left hand. “When I woke up, there was blood everywhere. My two brothers, 4 and 16, were injured. My niece died. She was only 18 months-old. I feel sad and guilty.”

“The danger is now at every corner in communities from Central and Northern Mali where heavy fighting took place,” said Françoise Ackermans, UNICEF Representative in Mali. “Explosions can happen anywhere and anytime -- when children are on their way to school or when a woman goes to the market. Our teams on the ground report charred remains of war vehicles and a lot of abandoned ammunition.”

“A mother will not bring her children to the health centre if she believes the surroundings are contaminated with UXOs. A teacher will not go back to school if the courtyard is full of abandoned ammunition”, Ms. Ackermans added.

In order to better protect civilians from the explosive threat, UNICEF-supported partners have held public events over the past five months in schools, markets and workplaces that have raised the awareness of an estimated 27,000 people.

“We are not always with adults”, said 13 year-old Adidiatou after attending a session. “If children don’t know, they may pick up a grenade or another explosive thing as if it was a toy. They may not realize it can hurt. If children don’t participate to these information activities, it’s a pity.”

National and Community based radio stations have also been used to disseminate life-saving messages in five languages, while the agency has also produced posters and other material using Malian artists.

Preliminary field reports for the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) suggest that large quantities of explosive remnants of war (ERW) -- including unexploded and abandoned ammunition such as artillery shells, mortars, rockets, grenades, bullets and aircraft bombs -- have been left behind in the aftermath of air attacks and ground operations. The highest concentration of ERWs is likely to be found in areas where heavy fighting took place such as in Diabaly, Douentza, Konna and Gao.

“It is clear that Mali is impacted by the presence of landmines and explosive ordnance”, said Gareth Edwin Francis, UNMAS Operations Officer. “The United Nations has a duty to address this through the swift deployment of survey and Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams in order to ensure safe access for all actors and, importantly, to respond to the needs of the Malian population. As one of several steps to this end, UNMAS is currently planning the imminent deployment of a team to Konna in Central Mali. More will follow.”

In 2013, UNICEF and its partners are planning to step up mine-risk education activities and radio sensitization campaigns, especially in Northern regions in order to raise the awareness of about 400,000 people in conflict affected areas.