Risk Education In Iraq

Delivering life-saving messages to vulnerable communities

The Al-Nuri mosque stood tall, looming over its near surroundings in West Mosul. Mountains of rubble encircle the building, the remnants of war clearly visible. Despite its haggard appearance, it beckons children nearby to pacify their curiosity and approach. The fencing surrounding the edifice, intended to keep visitors out, proves a challenge, but five-year-old Mohammed* and his sister, Noor*, still manage to squeeze their bodies from underneath.

A few minutes later, a loud explosion echoes in the distance. Mohammed and Noor find their expedition cut short all too suddenly. While climbing on the piles of rubble, they had accidentally triggered an improvised explosive device (IED), sending shrapnel into their bodies. Noor, hurt in her throat, was able to survive. Her little brother, unfortunately, was not able to survive his chest wound.

One year later, the presence of explosive hazards continues to plague the city of Mosul and its surrounding areas. Almost two years post liberation from Da’esh, the retaken areas remain heavily contaminated with IEDs and explosive remnants of war (ERW), ensuring the presence of Da’esh is still visible years after their defeat.

UNMAS, in tandem with other mine action organizations and working closely with the Government of Iraq, is clearing these areas from explosive hazards. However, in spite of the intensive work being conducted, it is estimated to take years before full clearance of the retaken areas can be achieved.

So how do UNMAS and other mine action organizations keep people safe in the interim?

Simply, through risk education. The complexity and innovativeness of explosive devices manufactured during Da’esh control are unique. All objects were fair game, including common civilian items like cooking utensils, furniture, and children’s toys. Such innovation and sophistication in explosive device-making requires similar innovative and sophisticated risk education methods as a positive counter-effect.

As a key pillar of UNMAS explosive hazard management (EHM) strategy in Iraq, risk education plays a pivotal, supporting role to clearance efforts undertaken by both UNMAS and government entities. In all retaken areas where UNMAS Iraq operates, teams of community liaison officers and risk education instructors are mobilized in the nearby vicinity, to both collect key information on explosive hazard contamination and provide life-saving messages to the surrounding community.

In addition, UNMAS recognizes that individuals grasp and assess information at different levels and paces. That is why UNMAS tailors it messages based on different grouping mechanisms, such as: age, gender, context, geography, financial background, etc. Below are select samples of UNMAS risk education tools and products.

In-Person Risk Education Sessions

UNMAS provides a series of interactive seminars/lectures to vulnerable and/or displaced communities, as well as humanitarian actors whose job entails them to be present at the front lines of conflict. This includes hosting humanitarian actors for in-person sessions, visiting internally displaced person (IDP) camps, door-to-door mini-sessions in contaminated neighborhoods, detailed sessions in key assembly points, including sites of cash-for-work projects, schools for children and specific events.

The sessions are always customized per target group, accompanied by printed material, props, etc. to convey the life-saving messages with full impact. For children, this has even included incorporating these messages in live puppet shows.

Over the past fifteen months, UNMAS has conducted approximately 36,300 risk education sessions to 650,100 beneficiaries, including 1,100 humanitarian actors and 1,500 government officials who also participated in various risk education workshops aiming at exchanging best practices and reinforcing their capacity.

Innovative Tools Used as Methods of Classical Conditioning

In an effort to increase the reach of its messages, UNMAS has placed risk education messages on Ramadan dates and water bottle packaging, children’s coloring books, outdoor posters on walls, taxis, and through billboards. For humanitarian actors, UNMAS has also printed the messages on gloves targeting cash-for-work employees engaged in rubble removal and reconstruction efforts. This ensures that these life-saving messages are always present and visible, serving as a constant reminder for safe behaviours everywhere.

Virtual reality goggles are another innovative tool used during awareness sessions or specific events to give participants the opportunity to experience first-hand explosive hazard-contaminated environments before they are confronted with the real-world situation.

Capitalizing on the Power of Media

Whether it’s children, youth, or adults, the role of media plays an integral and central part in the lives of Iraqis throughout the country. While the modes and means of media consumption may differ, there is still an appetite for both traditional and modern media tools.

UNMAS, in addition to disseminating its life-saving messages through modern media tools, such as its social media platforms, has also created several television and radio messages. Short clips targeting children, teenagers, and adults have been published on local TV and radio channels. UNMAS Iraq staff members have also appeared on several Arabic and English TV and radio channels to present explosive hazard risk education messaging.

Hosting Risk Education Events for Stronger Impact

Children are the prime targets for Da’esh-made IEDs. They are the group most vulnerable and susceptible, to the danger posed by explosive hazards. As such, UNMAS, along with its partners, carefully assesses powerful mechanisms to embed these important life-saving messages. UNMAS implementing partners regularly host and participate in children’s events or festivals to further spread the message.

In March 2019, UNMAS, sponsored by the Government of Japan, hosted a “Safe Run” for children in the Debaga IDP Camp in northern Iraq. The event encompassed a three-kilometer race, the screening of risk education TV clips, a questions and answers session, as well as several speeches. Highlights of the event can be seen here.

While it is difficult to measure the tangible results of risk education, especially in regards to lives saved, feedback obtained through Post Impact Assessments has demonstrated the positive outcome of such initiatives, including knowledge retention. In Iraq, the novel means and methods of explosive device-making has taken the lives of many unsuspecting civilians, including children. That is why risk education is so important. Until Iraq is free from explosive hazards, risk education must continue as an integral preventive measure.

UNMAS would like to thank Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, the European Union, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom who have contributed to its explosive hazard management and risk education activities in Iraq.

Photos: UNMAS Iraq/ Cengiz Yar; UNMAS Iraq/Alawj Media

* Names have been changed to protect children's identity