Mind Over Mines: UNICEF project uses children's entertainment to teach life-saving lesson (Armenia)

When Gayane and Hayk were going to play as usually in their forest meadow, they had no idea what danger faced them.


"Do you know that our forest is full of mines", asks the ginger-feathered Bird quickly approaching the children from behind the colorful tree.

Since May, within the framework of the UNICEF Mine Risk Education Program, Gayane and Hayk, the Bird, and a host of other entertaining and educational characters have been cast in "Don't Touch; Those are Mines", a puppet play produced for children in Armenia's "risk zones". Traveling to villages on the border with Azerbaijan, where unmapped and unmarked mines left from the Karabak War are a hazard, puppeteers teach a lesson that could be life-saving.

What are mines made of? What do they look like? How do they explode? Where are they placed? What's the damage mines and mined territories can cause? What are the signs helping to recognize risk zones?

Answers to these and many other questions get the children carefully following the performance, listening to the stories and advice given by the puppet characters.

"Listen, children, carefully: mines are made to wound, destroy and kill", explains the Scientist to the children. "It's more dangerous than the wolf, and wittier than the fox. Mines are well-hidden in nature. So don't touch unfamiliar objects, play only with your toys."

During the breaks of this multi-act performance the troupe director Armen Safaryan comes out to the stage and asks children a few questions to the point. Active children start answering, using the information learned a little while ago.

"This undertaking is very effective. In the scope of the Mine Risk Education Programme 27 performances are planned in the frontier villages. This is an extremely important activity in respect of contents, information and impact", says the UNICEF Armenia's Information & Communications APO Emil Sahakyan. "The performances are educational and impressive. They are of interactive character and are combined with questions and answers to children. The latter helps them to memorize the information better and assist to their comprehension of how to behave in different possible situations".

Besides the performances the Programme holds photo-exhibitions in different provinces. Photos by well-known photographer German Avagyan tell about mine-injured and disabled children.

Within the Programme framework, besides the performances and photo-exhibitions, two manuals have been created, aimed again at raising the awareness of those living in border regions.

"Safety in Our Surrounding", manuals for teachers and specialists working in the communities, give general information about mined territories of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, as well as the risks connected with them. It introduces the recommended behavior in those areas and other essential knowledge, which, specialists say, is of vital importance.

A total area of about 321 square kilometers along the border is considered dangerous due to mines ' especially in the regions of Ararat, Gegharkunik, Syunik, Tavoush and Vayots Dzor.

Research carried out last year by the United Nations Development Program and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation estimates 68,737 people have suffered from mines and unexploded weapons in Armenia.

"The risk is extremely high", says UNICEF Assistant Education Programme Officer Alvard Poghosyan. "During the war territories were mined, and no maps of them are available, which makes the situation even more complicated and demands more attention and awareness. There were cases when the miner exploded on the mine he himself had put. In this no-war, no-peace situation, we have to be ready for everything."

Poghosyan says that the best thing in this situation is to raise the level of awareness of children living in the border regions and to ensure a more careful behavior on their part.

"Playing with whatever they come across, children often reach the risk zones, putting their lives in danger they don't know anything about. And as a result children suffer in the majority of cases because of their curiosity," Poghosyan says. "The activities included in this program are aimed specifically at informing children living in the border, and thus risk, zones."

Thirteen year-old Astghik, a resident of Eraskh village, watching attentively the performance, says everything was new to her.

"We couldn't even imagine where the danger could come from and what risk we have been taking every day. My friends, relatives and I will be more careful," the teenager says.

Situated about 65 kilometers from Yerevan, this village of about 1,000 residents knows first-hand what war, military actions, bombing, and social hardship mean.

"Look! The border is over there," say the residents pointing at the mountains. The village school is only 800 meters from the border.

On the crossroad of past bombings and war memories (recalling the sound of gunshots) and the present aftermath life, colorful puppets and bright decorations have come to protect children from war consequences.

Bombing was a few years ago, but this village is still marked by the destructive effects of its past. The school is half-ruined from bombs, it lacks windows.

The school principle Mariam Levonyan says the school was first bombed in 1989. This first was followed by a number of others.

"Two years ago one of our villagers died as a result of a landmine explosion. He had gone to tend a herd and right there, in the pasture, the mine blew up. This kind of activity (the theater) is very important especially for children, as mostly they are the ones taking the stock to the pastures," says Levonyan.

The effectiveness of the puppet theatre and the impact it has is highly appreciated also by the actors and the art director, who have performed in more than 20 villages.

"If a TV channel can be changed to another, and the brochure telling about mines ignored, puppet theatre performance is a different matter. It plays a special part in children's lives," the Head of the Armenian Center of the International Union of Puppet Theatre Workers and the strolling performances troupe director Safaryan says. "There is no other option in this case. The interest and the results become obvious, when children take an active part in the query over the subject. The risk is very high in border regions. Hence children should be informed to be protected. And this (the performance) is one of the brightest and most effective means."

Irina Sargsyan, 23, a mother of two children, agrees that the impact is great, and the information inestimable for its being comprehensible.

"We watch the performance and realize how little we know about all of this, when it's so important," says Irina. "Children are very fond of digging out things, pulling, burning, exploding; and now I can see how interested and concentrated they are. I'm sure that after the performance they will be more careful ' one thing that can save their lives at a place called a border zone.

Von: 09.09.06, http://armenianow.com

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