Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Toying With War

Aid organisations use theatre to warn Chechen children of the dangers of untold numbers of mines and unexploded bombs.
By Valeri Dzutsev

Lechayev Islam was playing with a bunch of his pals in Grozny last summer. One of them picked up a brightly coloured object lying on the ground. It was a mine. Five of his friends were killed and 12-year-old Islam lost both eyes and hands.


Islam is one of around a hundred children who have passed through the wards of a hospital in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, victims of Russian-laid (some say Chechen) mines in neighbouring Chechnya. The staff here not only treat their wounds, help them with their new artificial limbs, but also treat their mental scars.


The children appear strong with mischievous grins and stiff upper lips. It's difficult to know what is really going on in Islam's head as he smiles from the swathes of bandages. It's almost unnerving to see these youngsters bear their disabilities with such courage.


The Red Cross and UNICEF have been working hard to try and prevent what happened to Islam and others. While mine clearance isn't an option since Chechnya remains a war zone, they can do their best to warn children of the danger posed by these and other unexploded ordinance which litter not just Chechnya but neighbouring Ingushetia and Dagestan too.


It's unclear just how many mines there are in Chechnya now but a report by the military research organisation Jane's back in 1998 suggested there were two for every one of the country's population of 600,000. It said the explosives were concentrated around civilian areas, fields, grazing areas and water sources. These were clearly intended to target civilians.


Worse, children are increasingly falling victim to them as many look like playthings.


For example, the green PFM-1, also called the butterfly mine, is designed to flutter through the air and can easily be mistaken for a toy.


According to UNICEF, since 1994 more than half of the 7000 landmine victims who have been fitted with prosthetic limbs have been women and children.


Reports of landmine casualties sent to IWPR by the heads of two villages in Chechnya make disturbing reading: Feb 2000 - two teenagers came across a mine. Childish curiosity prompted them to examine it. It exploded and killed them. Summer 2000 - a teenager was leading cattle from pasture. He saw a bunch of glittering globes. He touched one of them and his hand was blown off.


UNICEF, WHO and the HALO Trust (the latter spearheaded the mine-clearance operation before the second Chechen war) have set up a number of mechanisms for alerting families to the dangers of mines.


Apart from spreading literature and training hundreds of local officials, they are taking a show on the road with a hundred artists performing sketches about these deadly devices.


One group put on a puppet show where a character from Chechen folklore, Cheerdig, leads the audience through a fairytale world in a search for magic waters to cure his dying grandmother. As he goes about the search, he faces all manner of danger in the form of landmines and unexploded ordinance.


The play has been staged in Ingushetia and shown to Chechen children in internal displacement camps in the North Caucasus, as well as in Chechnya itself.


The initiatives are also designed to make more victims aware of the treatment on offer. "Many invalids simply don't realise that we can help them recover from their wounds," said Aida Ailarova, the deputy coordinator for the UNICEF mine awareness programme in the region.


For the foreseeable future she will have a constant stream of youngsters like Sultankhanov Aslan, who stepped onto a mine just outside his home in the village of Shalazhi in Urus-Martan district of Chechnya.


He had both legs amputated up to the thighs. "I do not remember the first three days after it happened," he said, "Then, comforting my relatives became my primary concern, as they were crying day and night."


Valeri Dzutsev is a regular IWPR contributor in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia.