For Immediate Release
Handicap International Deploys Emergency Response Mission to Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) to Protect Civilians
WASHINGTON - Handicap International is sending a team Friday to respond to the emergency situation that resulted from a series of explosions at munitions depots in the Republic of Congo’s capital, Brazzaville, on Sunday, March 4. A decontamination expert will be responsible for securing the danger zone and raising awareness among the civilian population and teams working in the area of the dangers of unexploded ordnance. The Congolese capital is particularly polluted by munitions and grenades, which were projected by the explosions across a range of several square miles in a densely-populated civilian area. This tragic accident demonstrates the need for broader interventions to address the issue of unused munitions conserved in depots that no longer meet the required safety standards for stockpiling this type of equipment.
The explosions at the munitions depots on Sunday in a heavily populated section of Brazzaville left 180 dead and 1,340 injured, announced Georges Moyen, the Congolese Health Minister, on Tuesday. The depots contained small-caliber weapons and munitions. One of the depots is still inaccessible as removing the rubble will require heavy lifting equipment. The second depot is accessible but densely contaminated by large numbers of highly unstable, unexploded grenades. The buildings collapsed on top of the munitions, and those that did not explode were projected over a 360 degree range, at a distance of 2.5 to 3.7 miles (4-6 km). These munitions are either scattered across the ground or encased in the rubble, and they pose a potential threat to the thousands of civilians who are raking through the remains trying to recover the few items spared by the explosions. The zone is so heavily polluted with unexploded ordnance that even members of the reconnaissance team have not yet entered the area.
Philippe Houliat, a mine clearance expert for Handicap International, is heading to Brazzaville.His mission is to mark hazardous areas, identify the risks due to munitions that have landed close to people’s homes and raise awareness of these risks among the civilian population and the teams working directly in polluted zone.
“It is important to explain to people the right action to take when they come across an unidentified object:Do not approach the object or touch it, mark the hazardous area and inform the authorities or Handicap International’s teams on site,” explained Houliat. “This prevention work is vital in the current context, in order to save lives and stop the already dramatic loss of human life from escalating in the weeks to come,” Houliat added.Handicap International may undertake decontamination work in the affected region in the weeks to come, depending on what needs have been identified and commitments made by other humanitarian stakeholders present.
Unfortunately, this disaster is not an isolated incident.Numerous developing countries have munitions depots located in city centers, in densely-populated neighborhoods. These depots do not always meet the security requirements established under international rules. The stockpiles of obsolete and often unusable munitions stored at these depots then become a potential danger for the surrounding population, but also for the workers operating the sites on a daily basis.
Handicap International has been doing similar work since April 2011 in Mauritania under the framework of the “Partnership for Peace” program to support the government through the process of dismantling 11 munitions depots that no longer meet the required safety standards.
Handicap International is an independent and impartial international aid organization working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster. We work alongside people with disabilities and vulnerable populations, taking action and bearing witness in order to respond to their essential needs, improve their living conditions and promote respect for their dignity and fundamental rights. Since its creation in 1982, Handicap International has established development programs in more than 60 countries and it has worked in various emergency situations. Eight national associations comprise the Handicap International network: Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Switzerland. Together, the national associations mobilize resources, jointly manage projects and promote the organization’s principles and actions around the world. Handicap International is one of the six founding organizations of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which was jointly-awarded the 1997 Nobel PeacePrize. In 2011, Handicap International received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.