Around the world, landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), unexploded ordnance (UXO), and other explosive hazards remain a persistent threat to life, limb, and livelihood. These explosive hazards also hinder post-conflict stabilization efforts and the safe delivery of humanitarian assistance. In 2019 alone, explosive hazards killed or maimed more than 5,550 people in 55 countries, according to the Landmine Monitor, with ongoing conflicts across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East taking the largest toll on civilians.
Systematically locating and destroying explosive hazards is the only way to completely remove this persistent threat to civilians and impediment to economic development. This methodical process requires time, focus, and adherence to rigid safety guidelines to ensure that neither deminers nor local civilians and their property are hurt. While deminers undertake this lifesaving work, risk education plays a critical role in teaching local communities about the dangers of explosive hazards and promoting safe behavior in contaminated areas.
In an effort to overcome these obstacles, the State Department teamed up with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Facebook in 2019 on a pilot project that delivered risk education to Iraqis living in areas liberated from ISIS via geographically-targeted Facebook ads. This pioneering approach to risk education delivered lifesaving messages to approximately one million at-risk Iraqis over three months and provided them with information needed to help rebuild their lives safe from ISIS bombs. This pilot project was also the first time that social media ads had ever been used to deliver targeted risk education and has been recognized by many in the protection space as a potentially game-changing approach to expanding the reach of risk education.
In November, the State Department in partnership with MAG and Facebook launched the second phase of this project. While the pilot project focused solely on areas of northern Iraq liberated from ISIS, phase two will deliver risk education to more than nine million at-risk civilians in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and Vietnam. These four countries remain heavily contaminated by landmines, IEDs, UXO, and other explosive hazards that kill and maim civilians while also blocking economic development and the return of displaced communities.
In Iraq, explosive hazards dating back to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and through the recent conflict with ISIS continue to threaten civilians and undermine stability. While the location of older contamination is well known, IEDs recently left by ISIS to indiscriminately kill civilians continue to delay the return of displaced communities as well as the resumption of economic activities across large portions of Iraq.
As members of Iraqi minority communities that were persecuted and targeted for genocide by ISIS return to their homes, IEDs and landmines continue to present a very real threat. For example, in the Yezidi village of Skeniy located in the district of Sinjar, a shepherd named Kero lost more than 15 sheep while grazing his flock in an area liberated from ISIS just over two years earlier. While Kero was not hurt in the accident, he lost a large portion of his flock, which he and his family were depending on to help support them as they rebuilt their lives. Other shepherds in Kero’s village also have lost sheep. A January 2018 explosion next to Kero’s home wounded two of his family members, with one losing both eyes and the other losing their hands and feet to the ISIS bomb.
In Lebanon, landmines, UXO, and IEDs from the 1975-1991 Civil War, the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006, and the brief presence of ISIS and other violent extremist groups along Lebanon’s border with Syria continue to threaten local communities. Since 1975, explosive hazards in Lebanon have killed more than 900 people and injured thousands more. Beyond the human toll, explosive hazard contamination continues to block economic development and access to land across large swaths of Lebanon.
After the Lebanese Armed Forces’ 2017 defeat of ISIS and Nusrah Front elements along Lebanon’s northeast border with Syria, local residents displaced by the extremists slowly began returning to their homes to rebuild their lives. These communities found their homes destroyed and their fertile farmland seeded with landmines and IEDs left by extremists. While demining operations in this region have enabled many families to return and begin farming again safely, significant swaths of farmland remain contaminated. Despite the risks, Lebanon’s ongoing financial crisis is driving many displaced families to return, begin planting, and raise animals before their land has been cleared, making MAG’s U.S.-funded risk education and clearance work all the more important.
In Somalia, years of fighting beginning with the Ogaden War in 1977 have resulted in extensive explosive hazard contamination. These hazards continue to kill and injure innocent civilians while blocking access to basic services. Faiza and her four children live in an IDP camp along the border between Somalia and Ethiopia. Faiza knows the detrimental impact of explosive hazards all too well after losing her first-born son in an accident involving a piece of UXO. Faiza recently recounted the tragic episode to MAG noting, “My son and five other boys found an unidentified metallic object. As kids, they did not know the danger posed by mines and remnants of war. The device exploded after the children started tampering with it, and my boy died from the accident while the others were injured.”
In Vietnam, 30 years of conflict from World War II to the Vietnam War resulted in significant landmine and UXO contamination. While the United States has provided more than $148 million in support of demining operations since 1993, explosive hazards continue to threaten human security and slow economic development. In places like Bich La Dong village in Quang Tri province, residents routinely encounter explosive hazards while farming, building, and conducting their day-to-day lives. Twenty-seven accidents involving UXO have taken place in Bich La Dong alone, injuring 18 people, killing nine, and discouraging many locals from farming or building new homes.
Mr. Le Van Thuy, a 61-year old farmer in Bich La Dong village recently told MAG representatives: “Our front garden, which is just 50 meters away from my house, used to be the location of a number of trenches used by Vietnamese soldiers for travel and transport during the war so it was heavily bombarded. After the war ended, a lot of unexploded bombs found by local people were thrown down the trenches. I’ve always reminded myself, my wife, and my children of being cautious whilst farming the land and reporting to the local authorities if any suspicious items were uncovered. A careless moment might result in life-threatening injury.”
National and local authorities, the mine action sector, and various actors in the protection space have delivered countless risk education sessions in the four countries previously mentioned. However, geography, conflict, local cultural dynamics, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic continue to present obstacles to traditional risk education and prevent at-risk communities from receiving the risk education needed to live their lives in safety. The recently launched joint State Department-MAG-Facebook risk education project will take the innovative approach of using targeted social media ads to help reduce the risk of explosive hazard-related accidents and encourage safe behavior. They will also teach local communities how to identify and report explosive hazards to local authorities. Finally, MAG will deliver risk education messages in local languages and use the most recent data on explosive hazard accident trends to ensure that ads target high risk regions and demographics.
The State Department is proud to partner with MAG and Facebook to expand this pioneering approach to risk education that highlights the important role that public-private partnerships can play in making the world a safer place.
For more information on how the State Department is strengthening human security, facilitating economic development, and fostering stability through demining, risk education, and other conventional weapons destruction activities, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.
About the Author: Solomon Black is the Branch Chief for Africa, Europe, and the Middle East in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement at the U.S. Department of State.