NEW YORK (April 19, 2012) — On a rainy day in 2000, in a village outside Erbil, Iraq, 6-year-old Karzan was walking home when a blast tore through the town square, striking him and another boy.
Karzan lost his left leg and left eye in the explosion. The other boy, his nephew, was killed.
“We used to play in that square all the time,” said Karzan, now 18. The blast was caused by an explosive remnant of war (ERW) – a landmine or an unexploded bomb – that had been unearthed in the heavy rains or washed into the square from a nearby village.
“I always tell myself that it was my fate,” he said.
It is a fate awaiting too many children.
Iraq is one of the most landmine- and ERW-contaminated countries in the world. According to the Ministry of Defence, around 20 million mines and more than 50 million cluster bomblets litter the country, accumulations from the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and the Persian Gulf wars in 1991 and 2003.
The weapons are indiscriminate, and they continue to kill long after hostilities have concluded. Children are particularly vulnerable; many are victimized while doing chores or playing outside. And in areas where children are accustomed to improvising their toys, the bright shells of explosives can seem like attractive playthings.
An estimated 5,500 to 8,000 Iraqis, more than a quarter of them children, have been injured or killed by failed cluster bomblets, and thousands of additional casualties may have gone unrecorded.
Survivors of landmine or ERW blasts face lifelong disabilities, stigma, and limited prospects for education and employment. And children who lose parents to landmines or ERW are often forced to drop out of school to support themselves and their siblings.
In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly declared April 4 the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action, mobilizing the international community against the use of landmines. UNICEF partners with governments, international NGOs, and other UN agencies to assist at-risk populations with mine-risk education and mine clearing programs.
UNICEF has supported mine-risk education for 11 years, teaching children in mine- and ERW-contaminated areas how to protect themselves from these devices. Since 2006, messages about mine and ERW risks have reached 2 million Iraqis, either through educational sessions, posters, leaflets or kits. UNICEF has also supported the drafting of a national mine-risk education strategy, as well as mine-risk curricula for inclusion in schools.
With the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UNICEF is also supporting an injury surveillance program that will assist victims of landmines and ERW.
And UNICEF and its partners are working to help the government eradicate all mines from Iraq by 2018.
These efforts will help prevent tragedies like the one experienced by 10-year-old Abdul-Zahra, in the southern district of Al-Siba. Abdul-Zahra was injured by a metal object found on his walk home from school – unexploded ordnance he mistook for a toy.
The blast mangled his leg, leaving him permanently disfigured. “Nobody has ever told me that these things are dangerous and can explode,” he said.
*Abdul-Zahra's account was documented with assistance from Bustan NGO