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Pakistan: as flood waters recede, hidden killers lie in wait

17-08-2010 Feature

With a real risk of mines and unexploded ordnance being washed down with the floods, people living in previously uncontaminated areas are now at risk. Jessica Barry has been finding out more.

At the beginning of August, 60-year-old Khawaga Bibi went out as usual with the other village women to gather firewood from the nearby woods and fields. The area she lived in had been badly affected by the floods, but the water had gone down, leaving only thick mud and debris in the place where the women went daily to look for logs. As she bent to pick one up, Mrs Khawaga stepped on a mine. The blast ripped off her right leg below the knee. She also sustained injuries to her shoulder and arm.

When the other villagers heard the explosion they grabbed a rope bed and ran to see what had happened. They found Khawaga Bibi on the ground surrounded by the other women, some of whom had also been injured, but none of them seriously.

They rushed Mrs Khawaga to the nearest hospital in Dera Ismail Khan. Given her condition, she was quickly referred on to the Surgical Hospital for Weapon Wounded run by the ICRC in Peshawar. She is still there.

There are also confirmed reports of three flood-related mine victims in the Dera Ismail Khan area, and another in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. All of the victims were injured by ordnance or mines that had been washed down with the rains in recent days from areas affected by fighting.

Mrs Din Bibi, one of Khawaga Bibi's four daughters, accompanied her to Peshawar and said that the family had been unaware of the risks. " We knew the hills above the village had mines because cows and donkeys were getting injured and killed up there. But we had never found any mines in the valley before, " she commented as she sat chatting with a group of other women in the hospital compound.

 Mines do not choose their targets  

Mines and explosive remnants of war are indiscriminate killers. They do not choose the ir targets, and can harm the unwary even long after fighting is over. The three other flood-related mine victims in Dera Ismail Khan were all children.

With mines being deposited by the floodwaters in areas where there was no such threat before, people need to be warned urgently of the risks, and given advice about what behaviour to adopt if they see a suspicious object on the ground.

The ICRC has been running a mine-risk education programme in Pakistan since June 2009. In response to the current situation, it is now ratcheting up its mine risk education activities with radio spots giving messages about safe behaviour. It is also producing a leaflet on the same issue, to be given out during distributions of relief aid.

“Our concerns and apprehensions are based on bitter experience of similar situations in other countries,” remarks Luiza Khazhgerieva, an ICRC mine-risk education expert based in Islamabad.

 Exposing the killers  

It is not just since the floods started that mine victims have been arriving at the ICRC’s Surgical Hospital for Weapon Wounded, often in a very bad state having travelled for hours or even days over rough terrain from remote areas. Thirty eight mine blast victims have been admitted to the hospital since the beginning of this year.

One of them is 14-year-old Irfan. He sits rather forlornly on his bed wearing blue patterned pyjamas, his arm in a heavy white cotton sling. His father stands silently by his side. Irfan’s injuries were caused by a piece of unexploded ordnance, and cost him two fingers as well as injuries to his leg and groin.

According to his father, Irfan was playing near a large cemetery on his way back from school when he saw a shiny looking object on the ground that he could not recognize. He picked it up and it exploded in his hand.

Asked if he were aware of the dangers of doing such a thing, he replied, “there were posters in school warning about mines, but I never really took much notice of them.”

Irfan’s uncle is a policeman, and it was he who went to the scene to retrieve the boy, not knowing it was his nephew who had been hurt. Irfan was taken to the local agency hospital. After receiving first aid, he was sent on to the ICRC’s hospital in Peshawar.

“I did not know either that it was my son who had been hurt until much later, " Irfan’s father recalls. Going over to his son’s bedside table, he opened a drawer and pulled out a small plastic bag to show his visitors. Inside was a jagged, 10 cms long piece of metal that surgeons removed from the boy’s body .

The mine-risk education material that is being prepared will provide both information and advice. It will warn people that mines and other dangerous, explosive devices that are swept up by the floodwaters are likely to be found on river banks, in stagnant water and in people’s fields.

The radio spots are simple and based on common sense, but will save lives if people who hear them take them to heart. ‘Do not approach, and never touch, suspicious objects’ is the first. ‘Do not investigate unknown objects unnecessarily,’ is the second. ‘Report any suspicious object to the authorities is the third.’

It is certainly advice which people in Mrs Khawaga’s village need to keep in mind, and be reminded about regularly. “Maybe the floods have taken the mines somewhere else by now, and our area is clean again, “ says Din Bibi hopefully.

She shouldn’t be too sure.