Around 30 young boys are hovering expectantly outside a community centre. They peer over each other’s shoulders to try to get a better look at the cardboard boxes filled with pictures. Report by Rebecca Fordham. Benghazi, 31 May 2011
“We are playing the ‘strange object game’,” says Diran Abdel Hafth, 15. “The idea is to decide if the objects are happy or sad, good or bad, and we will then learn whether they are safe to play with.”
The devastating effect of conflict on children is no more apparent than the physical and psychological impact that explosive remnants of war can have on young lives.
As the crisis continues in Libya, increasing knowledge of potential dangers is critical in protecting children and their families. Workshops are being conducted by trained members of the community, with technical support and guidance from UNICEF and its partners. The aim is to teach young people and their families to avoid handling dangerous remnants.
“We want to help our community,” says Abdel Rahim El Fitouri, Chief of Libyan Boy Scouts in Benghazi and Eastern Region. “The aim is not to frighten people, but to create awareness before they return to their towns and to show the dangers by preparing children and their families.”
The workshop is taking place at a camp for displaced people in Benghazi being led by the Libyan Scouts and Handicap International, UNICEF’s implementing partner. Around 1,000 people, including more than 300 children, are currently staying at the camp. The majority have come from Brega and Ajdabiya to escape the conflict.
“Our house was bombed and one of the rooms was destroyed,” says Diran, whose family had to leave everything at their home in Ajdabiya. He is learning to interact with other young people again and begin to share his experiences with help from the trained volunteers. “I like reading the information and looking at the pictures. It can be hard working with other people and making new friends.”
“Our simple message is ‘think before you do something’,” says Dave Haines, of Handicap International. Inside the community centre, some of the younger children are using memory cards and jigsaw puzzles to recognize the shapes of explosive remnants of war. They also use colouring and questionnaires to see what they have remembered.
“I’m drawing from these pictures, so I can remember what to look for,” says Sel Salby, 10, whose family had to leave Ajdabiya with only a few clothes when fighting broke out in their home town in February. “We thought we would be able to go back but we haven’t been able to return.”
Media in eastern Libya is also being used to spread understanding and reach a wider audience. Educational messages are being played over local AM and FM radio, while TV spots have also been aired, and pictures and posters have been put up across Benghazi.
In addition, leaflets and posters have been provided to the communities at risk in Misrata and messages distributed to the radio stations to encourage safe behaviour. Libyan footballers have been enlisted to help spread the word.
A coordinated approach
The United Nations – led by the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) – and international non-governmental organizations have partnered to form the Joint Mine Action Coordination Team.
The Team works with mine action organizations on the ground to provide coordination and prioritize clearance tasks. Advocacy efforts to prevent parties involved in the conflict using these deadly weapons are central to their work.
“Boys and girls are playing with unexploded ordnance as families visit battlefields in a dangerous pastime of battlefield tourism,” says UNMAS Programme Manager Max Dyck.
Outside the community centre, Diran and his friends finish their awareness session with a game of football. They each have to put one of their arms into a sling to try to imagine what it feels to have lost an arm. It’s something they go on thinking about as they try to tackle each other surrounded by the dusty air.