The significant progress made by the rebel forces in Libya, and the fall of Tripoli, do not mean that the civilian population is out of danger. Handicap International's team on the ground has identified a significant new danger: the proliferation of all types of light weapons, which are now in the hands of civilians who do not know how to handle them.
In response to this problem, our team in Libya has launched specific prevention actions targeting light weapons, and has intensified its mine risk education sessions dealing with antipersonnel landmines and explosive remnants of war.
As the rebels have advanced, they have been opening up stockpiles of weapons left behind by Gaddafi’s troops. This, along with the weapons sent to Libya by various States since the start of the conflict, has resulted in the spread of an unquantifiable number of light weapons. This proliferation of weapons throughout the whole country represents a threat to the population, unaccustomed to their use.
“We are faced with a civilian population which has taken up arms following the uprising, in a country where they were previously only held by military personnel,” explains James Turton, an arms violence reduction specialist at Handicap International, recently returned from Libya. “There are now people in possession of firearms who do not know how to use them correctly and have not been trained in their use, like two adolescents we saw who were injured whilst playing with a weapon. Our role is to avoid accidents in the areas where the fighting is over. It is unacceptable for example that during victory celebrations, when people often shoot into the air, people are injured or even killed.”
For Handicap International, it is important to respond immediately to this new threat to civilians. The organisation has therefore extended its activities to raise the population’s awareness of the dangers of handling weapons, and to inform them of how to limit the possibility of accidents.
Today, tens of thousands of civilians are also threatened by the unexploded ordnance strewn across the country. Some of these civilians, such as the inhabitants of Ajdabiya and Brega have fled the fighting and have taken refuge in the camps in Bengazi. When they return to their home towns, they run the potentially fatal risk of encountering unexploded ordnance.
Our team, which has been running an arms violence reduction project in Libya since March in Bengazi and Ajdabiya, will continue its prevention work with the population, with the aim of deploying as soon as possible to Misrata, one of the towns worst affected by fighting between rebel fighters and troops loyal to Gaddafi. Leaflets raising awareness about the risks posed by mines and the explosive remnants of war have already been distributed throughout the town and up to the Tunisian border. Handicap International’s activities are currently being implemented by a team of twenty staff members, including six expatriates, and around one hundred volunteers.
As soon as the situation allows, Handicap International will carry out assessments of Libyan towns as they become accessible following the end of hostilities. We are also sending a demining specialist to assess the needs on the ground (identification of areas containing mines or explosive remnants of war), in consultation with the authorities and the other stakeholders.