Mine Risk Education project on track to reach 6,000 children in Sri Lanka

The process of demining a former conflict zone can take decades, and in some regions the process does not even begin until many years after the fighting has stopped. Mine Risk Education (MRE), which helps civilians in high-risk areas avoid landmine injuries, has been a priority for Find A Better Way since the charity’s early days. Here is a quick update on our newest MRE project, which was launched recently in Sri Lanka by our partners Spirit of Soccer and Lareus Sport for Good.

The project is based in the town of Kilinochchi in the north of the country. Kilinochchi served as the de facto capital for the rebel Tamil Tigers during the long Sri Lankan civil war, and was the sight of a major battle in the conflict’s closing stages. Rebel troops deployed landmines in unpredictable ways, including planting circles of explosives around wells where soldiers might stop for water, or in the gardens of homes that were abandoned as they left the city. Mines have been found in everything from pots of curd to plastic cricket bats.  

The project Find A Better Way funds helps children learn life-saving MRE skills by interweaving them into sports coaching.  Spirit of Soccer have taught MRE alongside football (soccer) coaching all around the world, including a Find A Better Way-funded programme in Colombia, but as Sri Lanka’s favourite sport is cricket, bowling and batting skills have been incorporated into this latest version as well. Thousands of local children will be exposed to MRE thanks to the work of Spirit of Soccer and Laureus Sport for Good., but to ensure the skills are passed for many years to come thirty local coaches are being trained to run their own courses as well.

In March 2017 the first eighteen new coaches attended an initial workshop in Jaffna, in the far north of the country. The coaches were trained to deliver five separate ‘skill stations’ (four soccer related, one cricket related) where MRE messages will be directly linked to the sporting activities promoting an environment of self-learning amongst the players.

The primary focus of the training is to transmit four simple core messages of MRE to the children through these five soccer and cricket drills. The four core messages are:

  1. KEEP AWAY (likely locations of contaminated areas)
  2. DON’T TOUCH (types of mines and explosive in the area).
  3. INFORM / REPORT (behavior when encountering a mine or explosive – report to someone in authority)
  4. COMMUNICATE (pass on all of the above to friends and family members)

On the final day of the workshop, the coaches organized a soccer and cricket festival for 100 children aged between 12-14 years from mine and explosive contaminated villages near Kilinochchi.

Since the initial workshop the coaches have reached an additional 500 children in the immediate area. The programme is now being expanded into to the “high risk” areas of Kilinochi, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Jaffna in in Sri Lanka, directly reaching an estimated 6,000 children in total. A multi-media campaign using posters and schoolbooks printed with images of world-famous soccer and cricket stars and MRE messages is being rolled out as well, which will reach a further estimated 10,000 children.

Speaking of the many challenges Sri Lanka faces in the aftermath of its long civil war, Spirit of Soccer’s Joel Fernando said, “Injuries and deaths are still occurring, and mines and exploded ordinance are also preventing communities from rebuilding their lives and re-establishing their livelihoods. Contaminated land restricts access to paddy fields, water sources and routes to market. It also poses safety concerns for development agencies implementing rehabilitation projects.”

Find A Better Way CEO Lou McGrath concurs that the long-term difficulties in northern Sri Lanka are many. “People underestimate the long-term damage landmines and unexploded ordinance inflict on countries long after a conflict ceases. A child suffering a blast injury from a landmine is not just a tragedy in itself. It also places huge strain on the resources of a family, a village, and the wider community. Anything we can do to equip children with the tools and knowledge to live safely in high-risk areas is essential.”