Effort Begins to Remove
Land Mines From Schools

By Paul Bush

The campaign to eradicate land mines that was popularized by Princess Diana will be joined by thousands of school children around the world next month. Their goal will be to remove mines planted in school yards in at least three countries.

The new project is Schools De-Mining Schools, which is being sponsored in part by the United Nations.

Land mines kill 800 people and maim another 1,200 each month, according to figures from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Schoolchildren are often the intended target of land mines, say experts.

"When I tell people that schoolyards are mined, their reaction is 'Why? That's stupid.' But you want to intimidate and control the population," said Abouali Farmanfarmaian, coordinator of the Cyber Schoolbus Office, a United Nations educational program. "It's basically a weapon of terror," said Farmanfarmaian.

The Schools De-Mining Schools project has selected one school in Mozambique whose grounds have been mined as the first target for help. According to UN figures, Mozambique, which has a population of 16 million, contains 3 million mines as a result of armed conflict there. The project also hopes to aid similar schools in Laos and in Bosnia.

Cleaning up three schools will be a small start, but an expensive one, said Farmanfarmaian. "Just cleaning one schoolyard might cost $20,000," he said.

As part of the project, students will raise money to help the de-mining of the affected schools. Project organizers are trying to get corporations and other organizations to match funds raised by students.

Student help is critical in getting the schools cleaned up, says Mary Fowler, an officer with the UN's Mine Clearance office. "We don't have the money for that sort of thing," said Fowler. her office, which trains local mine-clearing teams, can only focus on clearing roads and other high priority areas.

The school in Mozambique, located in a northern village, is actually closed because of the mines. The village mayor has asked for help in clearing access to the school and then in cleaning the playground. "In the meantime, the kids are being educated by volunteer teachers in local houses," Fowler said.

The project is being coordinated by the United Nations and the International Education and Resource Network. I-EARN is a network of 2,500 schools in 45 countries that collaborate on projects using computer connections.

Because of the lack of local computer connections, once the Schools De-Mining Schools project begins, teachers will take students to UN Mine Action offices in Mozambique to contact students elsewhere.

The land mine project is expected to have educational benefits for participating American and international students, officials say. "We've learned over the years that kids will be more motivated when projects involve other kids and a real life situation," said Edwin Gragert, director of I-EARN USA.

His organization also hopes international efforts like the land mine project will have long term results. "We want to give kids the tools to address some of the issues facing them. In the future, instead of shooting each other or confronting each other they'll collaborate on finding solutions," Gragert said.

The Schools De-Mining Schools project will officially begin on United Nations Day, October 24. Some 20,000 schools around the world will get information about the project at the end of September, said Gragert.

Schools within the I-EARN network have already been notified. Because fall classes have just begun in the northern hemisphere, most of the schools that have joined the project are in the southern hemisphere, Gragert said.

Plans call for students to research land mines, land mine production in their own countries and other issues. By early November, students will be in contact through e-mail with children at schools affected by land mines.

Efforts to ban land mines have grown in recent years. One of the most visible proponents of the movement was Princess Diana, who visited Angola as part of her effort to draw attention to the issue.

Other organizations already have programs underway to do something about mines' impact on children. UNICEF, the United Nations children's organization, runs a mines awareness program in Croatia, Afghanistan, Mozambique and El Salvador. Its goal is to prevent injuries by making sure children can identify mines, some of which are scattered on the ground rather than buried. One notorious tactic is to disguise mines as toys.

Negotiations among 100 countries are currently underway in Oslo, Norway to iron out language for a treaty banning the use of land mines. Treaty signing ceremonies will take place in Ottawa, Canada in December.

It is estimated that as many as 110 million unexploded land mines exist in more than 60 countries. As many as 2 million new mines are laid every year, according to UN sources, but because of the high cost of removal, each year only 200,000 mines are defused.

"It takes in the range of $3 to $5 to produce a dimple mine. It takes $900 to $1,000 to remove one," said Farmanfarmaian.

Posted September 12, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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