(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Education defuses mine threat

Despite an effective demining and MRE campaigns, mines and UXO's still pose a threat in Sri Lanka's former combat zone
Amantha Perera/IRIN

Landmine injuries have been minimal in northern Sri Lanka, thanks in part to mine risk education (MRE) aimed at the tens of thousands of civilians returning home to the former combat zone, experts say.



This year, 38 people, including 18 children, were injured in mine-related incidents and seven died, including four boys, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Though grim, these figures are low compared with other Asian countries in similar straits.



"Sri Lanka had nearly three casualties per month over the 12 months from the end of the armed conflict. Afghanistan recorded 172 casualties per month in 2001 and in Cambodia for many years the rate remained at 65 casualties or more per month," Sebastian Kasack, a mine action specialist with UNICEF, told IRIN.



National and international organizations have been educating civilians on mine-avoidance since 2003.



The programmes broadened in scope in November 2009 when the first displaced people returned to the former northern combat-zone, six months after the end of the 26-year war.



"There is very good awareness among the people about mines and the dangers they pose because they have participated in these programmes," Philippa Copland, community liaison officer for the Mine Action Group (MAG), said.



A recent MAG survey among five villages in the Vavuniya and Mannar Districts in the former combat zone showed that more than 80 percent of participants recognized a mine sign, knew how to differentiate between safe and dangerous areas and safe behaviour in a risky area.



"Children and adults alike are capable of identifying suspected dangerous devices including UXO [unexploded ordnance] and sometimes even mines - 473 suspected devices were reported by the population since January," UNICEF's Kasack said.



Mine-risk education has reached 308,000 civilians in the former combat zone this year, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Sri Lanka.



Risk of routine



Both experts however, warned that as the resettled return to their normal routines, there was a risk of mine-related incidents. As a result, the MRE programmes would shift to teaching behavioural risks.



"Intentional risk-taking is the biggest challenge for MRE operators," Kasack said. "Most mine incidents are caused when burning land or rubbish, collecting scrap metal or digging."



According to OCHA, since January 2009, 396 sqkm have been cleared in Sri Lanka's north, while an estimated 552 sqkm in all five northern districts are still littered with mines.



MAG is demining in the three districts of Mannar, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu, part of the former war-zone. Copland said effective demining programmes had helped to keep the number of injuries low.



"It is a very effective demining programme that is in place," Copland said. "Before returns take place, the areas are surveyed and demined. No returns will take place unless the demining units have given the all-clear."



Local partners



UNICEF conducts MRE programmes with local agencies such as Sarvodaya and the Community Trust Fund. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) also supports mine awareness projects.



MAG is partnering with five Sri Lankan organizations to train community representatives in mine awareness.



UNICEF recently funded a mine risk awareness programme conducted by Internews Sri Lanka in the three northern districts of Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu. Between July and September the programme conducted 61 sessions for newly returned civilians, reaching more than 5,200 people.



ap/nb/mw

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