After a two-hour ride along crumbling roads, the risk-awareness team from the Senegalese Association of Mine Victims (ASVM) arrives at Leu Feu, a small village near the Gambian border. Today, the whole village, about 100 people, is gathered in front of the communal vegetable garden, under the shade of the large trees.
The team from ASVM, a Handicap International partner, divide the crowd into two groups—adults and children—in order to discuss the risks posed by explosive remnants of war. Leu Feu is located in Casamance, Senegal, the center of a 30-year civil conflict where landmines were used extensively. Handicap International has been working to clear mines in the region since 2007, but many unexploded devices remain buried in the ground. The ASVM presenters, Alasan Dedhiou and Boubakar Ba, are intimately familiar with how dangerous these hidden mines can be—landmines seriously injured both.
"The presenters always start with a little quiz to see what the villagers already know," says Mamady Gassama, one of the founders of ASVM. "Then they hammer home the main messages: do not approach an unidentified object sticking out of the ground, place two branches as a warning marker near the spot, and alert the village authorities. It is not complicated—people just need to use common sense."
The memory of the violence of the conflict lives on for Leu Feu villagers who returned home two years ago after living as refugees in Gambia. Some paths and fields still cannot be used due to fears about landmines. The conflict may be over, but soldiers continue to patrol around the village, which makes the people uneasy.
The awareness-raising sessions allow ASVM to provide the villagers with concrete steps they can take to protect themselves and dispel misinformation and misconceptions: No, lucky charms will not protect you from mines. No, you cannot get rid of a mine by burning it like trash. Yes, mines can move because heavy rains may cause landslides which push mines downhill.
A villager asks why it’s necessary to retrace your steps when you see a mine. After asking the group if anybody knows the answer, Boubakar Ba explains: "You should always assume that there is more than one mine in the area. So, it is safer to leave the same way you came."
Somebody else raises their hand, "Do mines stop working after a certain time?”
"No," says Boubakar, "they are like plastic bottles. They can remain intact for decades. You should always assume that a mine is active and dangerous."
"Children are at greatest risk because their natural curiosity,” says Alasan Dedhiou who is leading the children's group. Alasan shows the children colorful drawings that illustrate step by step how to stay safe.
"If the adults and children take away just one simple lesson, we will have succeeded,” says Mamady. “When I see something strange on the ground, I don't touch it, I mark the area, and I warn authorities."
Over the coming eight months, ASVM will hold landmine awareness sessions at 60 schools and 65 villages.
Handicap International cleared 1.8 million square meters of mines between 2007 and 2012 in Casamance. Thanks to the generous support of the U.S. Department of State, Handicap International deminers resumed this life-saving work in December 2015, with the aim of clearing 55,000m² by August 2016.