Not long ago, 13-year-old Amadou Hamadoune Diallo was playing with two friends near the ancient city of Timbuktu in northern Mali when they spotted what looked a toy—a hard black ball.
“We really wanted to find out what was inside,” says Amadou. “We tried to open it but couldn't, so we took turns throwing it against the ground. I threw it, and then I don't know what happened next. When I opened my eyes, I was in a hospital bed.”
The black ball turned out to be a grenade. Both of Amadou's friends died instantly when it exploded. Amadou lost his right leg and hand.
“I'm not sure he can carry on going to school, but I'm happy my son is still alive,” says Amadou's mother Aissata Harouna Touré. “Two other mothers lost their sons.”
Handicap International, which has been operating in Mali through the conflict that began in January 2012, found Amadou and is currently fitting him with a prosthetic leg. He will receive physical therapy so that he can learn to walk again and adapt to living with one hand.
The Islamic militants who occupied much of northern Mali up until three weeks ago when the Malian and French armies launched an offensive against them hastily retreated from Timbuktu and other cities, leaving behind countless explosive remnants of war (EWR) such as bombs, grenades, and landmines as well as small arms and light weapons. To prevent other innocent civilians from being harmed by these weapons, Handicap International has been leading mass risk education campaigns.
“For a child, it's impossible to tell the difference between a grenade and another object if no one has warned them that it's dangerous,” says Sylvie Bouko, Handicap International's specialist in reducing armed violence. “Now that the armed groups have retreated, it is very likely that a lot of families will soon return home and we're worried about the weapons they are going to come across.”
In parallel with the education campaign, Handicap International sent weapons experts to assess the former conflict area, zone by zone, to identify ERW so that the weapons can be destroyed.
“The extent of the contamination is a grave concern,” says Philippe Houliat, a weapons clearance expert for Handicap International who is currently in the newly liberated town of Diabali. “Grenades and munitions are strewn along the roads and weapons have been abandoned in houses right in the town center. Each one represents a lethal threat to the local population who are now starting to return to their homes.”
In the coming weeks, the first weapons clearance team, made up of experts from Mauritania, Senegal, and the Republic of Congo, will work with Handicap International's Malian staff to start neutralizing the explosives identified during the assessments. Three additional clearance teams will be deployed before the end of February.