The sun is just rising over Diabaly, Mali, but the 17 members of Handicap International’s weapons clearance team are already well into their work day. When lives are at stake, every hour counts.
Following months of fighting between rebel forces and the Malian army, the towns and villages along the road between Ségou to Timbuktu are littered with abandoned weapons and explosives, each packed with deadly potential. Over the course of just one month, the team found 475 explosive devices and 5,522 small arms. These weapons threaten the lives of civilians who are returning from home to communities that were turned into battle zones. Children, naturally curious about unfamiliar objects, face the greatest risk of being injured or killed by explosives.
“Our team members are driven by a desire to help Mali get back on its feet,” says Sophie Dechaux, the manager of Handicap International’s conventional weapons risk reduction project in Mali. “Most of our team members are Malians and they’re here because they want to help their country turn the page on the conflict. They’re supported by experienced deminers, trained by Handicap International in other parts of Africa, including Senegal and Congo.”
The team is currently working on a former military base that was briefly occupied by rebel fighters, who abandoned the site in a hurry and left behind weapons. “This base is close to the market and the canal where people come to wash,” says Adrien Ousmane Ngom, the head of the demining team in Diabaly. “That’s why we’re clearing this site first.”
“Today, for example, we neutralized a 107MM rocket,” says Adrien. “If it had exploded, the shrapnel could have killed anyone within a 1,000-foot radius.”
Preventing accidents through education
In addition to clearing weapons, educating civilians about the risks posed by abandoned arms and explosives is crucial to preventing accidents. In June, a shepherd found a rocket and made the mistake of bringing it home. His children decided to play with it and it exploded, killing a four-year-old and injuring four others.
“These people haven’t come across these sorts of weapons before,” says Sophie Dechaux. “It’s totally new to them, so it’s essential to provide clear information on the risks and how avoid accidents if they encounter weapons.” Handicap International has been organizing risk education sessions in schools and public awareness events for the past year.