Curiosity Makes Children Vulnerable to UXOs

Shiny and different from anything he had seen before, 12-year-old Hou Vanna decided to take the artillery shell he had just found to his school in Preah Vihear province’s Kulen district. 

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A sign warns of land mines in Bokor National Park in Kampot province.

When the shell detonated at the school earlier this year, Vanna and 10 of his schoolmates, aged 9 to 17, were seriously injured.

With about a third of this year’s mine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) victims aged under 18, experts say it is children’s curiosity that leaves them more vulnerable to death and injury, especially from grenades and artillery shells.

“They like to play with things that look strange and new to them, so they touch and hit them,” Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) director-general Heng Ratana said yesterday.

“Sometimes children really don’t know about the dangers, but there are many outreach programs that teach them, and it is in the school curriculum,” Mr. Ratana said.

In the case of Vanna’s artillery shell and his 10 friends, all of them were aware of the dangers of mines, but their natural curiosity got the better of them.

Although the total number of victims of explosive remnants of war (ERW) decreased from 211 casualties last year to 184 so far this year, the proportion of young victims actually increased. In 2011, a total of 10 children were killed and 41 injured from ERWs, while so far this year, 14 children have been killed and 44 injured.

In Kompong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district in August, four children found a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and despite being aware of the possible danger, they played with it until it detonated leaving one of them dead and three of them injured. In a similar accident a month later, three eight-year-old boys died after playing with an RPG in Oddar Meanchey province’s Trapaing Prasat district.

“We know that, in general, more children get injured by playing with UXO than by stepping on landmines,” Mr. Ratana said, adding that for years, children had been one of CMAC’s main targets in mine awareness projects.

“But their attitude is to play with something strange and unusual, even if they were told about the dangers,” he said.

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