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NEPAL: Explosive Reminders of War

Mallika Aryal

GULMI, Nepal, May 13 2009 (IPS) - Eighteen army deminers are hard at work in the minefields of Wami Taksar in central Nepal. The deminers start out early in the morning, before the sun is too hot. They move meticulously from one mine to another, carefully excavating each one, and they take breaks to stay alert.

When they are done working, the deminers detonate all the mines excavated that day.

Over two hundred anti-personnel landmines were laid by the Nepal army in 2002. During the 1996-2006 civil war, security forces laid 53 minefields and at least 270 command-detonated improvised explosive device (IED) fields to protect vital installations across Nepal. Similarly, the Maoists placed homemade IEDs across the country.

Under the terms of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that put an end to the war, the Nepal army had to clear the minefields and the Maoists had to store or destroy their unstable IEDs within 60 days.

That deadline was not met. “Mine clearance is slow and very hard work; the timeframe given by the CPA was just not realistic,” says Purna Shova Chitrakar of the Ban Landmine Campaign in Nepal (NCBL).

However, progress has been made since the end of the war, and the Nepal army has demined ten minefields and 60 IED fields to internationally-recognised humanitarian standards.

In addition, the Maoist army has destroyed 18,642 items that are unsafe for storage and has also catalogued IEDs in their cantonment sites where the Maoist army has been staying since the peace agreement was signed.

Still, landmines and other explosive devices have killed or injured 197 people since the end of the conflict. The Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a human rights group, has developed a surveillance system to track casualties of landmines. INSEC says that in 2008 alone it identified 73 new casualties from 38 victim-activated explosions caused by mines, IEDs and other explosive devices.

INSEC reports that the total number of casualties in Nepal is decreasing every year, but that children still make up 63 per cent of those casualties. The group’s data also shows that by Apr. 1, 15 people had already been injured or killed this year by victim-activated explosions, including 10 children.

“A majority of the victims in such explosions are children and women, because in Nepal bombs do not look like bombs” says Hugues Laurenge of UNICEF. Also, “rural women go looking for fodder in the minefields, especially in the dry season when the grass behind the fence is more attractive,” he adds.

While the Nepal army has maps and documents on where its mine and IED fields are, the Maoists do not. Most IEDs are homemade, using readily available materials, and were used during an attack and left behind. “Those that they knew about have either been stored or destroyed, but many more are still scattered around Nepal’s countryside. Even the Maoists don’t know where they are,” says Laurenge.

Although it is a violation of the CPA to keep IEDs, since the end of the war many locals have been found to have kept them, either as souvenirs, or because they think explosives like bucket bombs have economic value, or simply because they do not know where to go to report it.

In June 2007, more than six months after the CPA was signed, a bucket bomb exploded in Palpa, a town in central Nepal, leaving nine dead and 18 children orphans. And recently, two minors who were grazing cattle in Darling village, in Gulmi district in central Nepal, found a stray IED and were killed while playing with it.

When an explosion occurs in any village, a team comprised of the Nepal army, police, NCBL and other NGOs is sent to the site. The team of experts helps the victims deal with injury and trauma, gives psychological support to the village and educates them on how to avoid IEDs in the future. “Ironically with every explosion, the team’s work area grows,” says Chitrakar of NCBL.

In addition, UNICEF, with support from local NGOs, has also been actively conducting mine-risk education and advocacy. It tells the locals what kinds of things to avoid, what to do when explosions occur, who to call, etc. “The explosives that the Maoists installed are not documented, so the only way to avoid casualties is to educate people,” says Chitrakar.

While Nepal can boast about clearance, advocacy and assistance, it is yet to sign the Mine Ban Treaty or the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which are two treaties addressing these issues at the global level.

The National Mine Action Authority was set up in June 2007, comprised of an inter-ministerial steering committee with policy responsibility and a technical committee to implement policies. But it has only met once. “These committees are only for lip service, there’s no plan of action and no commitment to even implement the policies already available,” says Chitrakar.

Experts working on the landmine question say that political instability is the biggest challenge they have to face with regard to issues related to explosives. They complain that governments change so often, and that the commitments made by one government are not followed through by another.

They also fear fresh contamination from armed groups operating in the Tarai, the southern plains, as more groups have been increasingly using IEDs to terrorise the population.

Nonetheless, experts agree that good work is happening in Nepal in terms of clearance, education and victim assistance, but the tempo needs to be maintained. “Nepal has the potential to solve its landmine problem in years, not decades, with proper support from the government,” says Steve Robinson of the United Nations Mine Action Team in Nepal.

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