Despite the departure of armed groups from Timbuktu, civilians continue to live under extremely dangerous conditions.In addition to shells and unexploded bombs, weapons abandoned by combatants previously in control of the city now pose a major threat to the local population. Handicap International, whose teams remained in Timbuktu after the city was captured April 2012, has already carried out door to door campaigns to warn people of the potential risks. The organisation is now stepping-up its efforts and planning to expand its operations, including weapons clearance projects.
“Although the battle to recapture the city was limited in scale, the fighting that took place in April 2012, when Timbuktu was captured by armed groups, led to the scattering of unexploded devices across a wide area.We’ve also noticed that in every town retaken over the last few weeks, the retreating fighters have abandoned large qualities of weapons in the homes they were occupying, explains Marc Vaernewyck, Handicap International’s Programme Director in Bamako.If we’re going to prevent the spread of accidents over the coming months, the first thing we need to do is ensure civilians are able to recognise these weapons and the risks they pose.Last year alone, we recorded more than 50 accidents of this type, most of which (31) involved children. Just yesterday, we received reports of a child who seems to have been killed following the explosion of a shell he had been pelting with stones in Konna [around 40 km to the north of Mopti]. All of the city’s inhabitants, and those expected to return there over the coming weeks, must be alerted to the dangers posed by the weapons they are going to come across.”
“Make no mistake about it: securing the area and protecting the local population over the coming months is a tall order. The risk education activities launched by Handicap International over the last few months in Timbuktu and other towns must continue and on a much larger scale. We have noticed over the last few months that children and certain groups of people, such as ironmongers, are particularly at risk from these shells, grenades and other weapons and unexploded munitions, which are present in large numbers, particularly in Timbuktu and the surrounding region.”
Since last summer, Handicap International has been performing risk education on conventional weapons and unexploded devices for people living in northern Mali. Awareness-raising sessions are organised in schools and camps for displaced people around the city of Mopti, and key community representatives in major towns and cities in northern Mali are helping to remind people of the need to remain vigilant.
In order to secure and neutralise these weapons, Handicap International also began drawing up a list of dangerous areas at the end of last year. Lastly, the organisation sent a demining expert to the area to prepare for the launch of weapons clearance activities, in coordination with all operators present in the field, over the next few days. The areas which have been assessed to date are Diabaly and Mopti.