Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf and Grandma are on the school gymnasium stage. There are giggles, murmured whispers and wide-eyed expressions among the children – about 40 of them, aged 6 and 7. The audience seems entertained.
Watching this, I remember my first years of school when the librarian would read me and my classmates the same story. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t stray into the dark woods. These were Little Red Riding Hood’s important, timeless and universal lessons.
But this rendition today is somehow different.
I am in School #2 in Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. Avdiivka is one of the many towns that sits along Ukraine’s contact line, in this ongoing conflict, it’s the line dividing government from non-government controlled forces and where fighting is most severe.
For nearly four years now, there has been a volatile armed conflict here. This is part of the country where there is daily and indiscriminate shelling. This is where neighbourhoods are littered with unexploded ordinance (UXO) and explosive remnants of war (ERW). Eastern Ukraine – in the heart of Europe – is now one of the most landmine contaminated places on earth.
With everything else going on in the world, we do not hear much about the Ukraine crisis. For the children here, they feel its effects every moment of their young lives.
The Wolf now sneaks around and places suspicious-looking items on the stage. He wants to trap Red and Grandma. Luckily, they have the knowledge to outsmart him. Knowledge which Grandma imparts to the children.
What to do if they come across a dangerous looking trap in their own neighbourhood? “You first must stop,” she says. “Look to the left, look to the right and make sure there are no more traps. After that, you turn around and follow your own footsteps to leave, because you don’t know what else could be around.”
“You must then tell an adult and ask them to call emergency services,” she adds.
When Grandma speaks, the room is quiet. Eventually, the Wolf returns and asks, “I found a mine and kicked it like a football. Is that right?”
The children laugh and shout, “Noooo!”
After a few more similar questions, the performance ends. On their way back to their classrooms, the children receive a comic book which UNICEF and partners distribute in towns like Avdiivka. The characters in that comic book are superheroes who teach children about protecting themselves from landmines and unexploded ordinance.
“PowerPoints don’t work for little children” Olena Kryvova tells me after the performance.
Olena works with FSD, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, one of the partners that together with Danish Demining Group (DDG) has worked with UNICEF to reach half a million children in eastern Ukraine with mine risk education – training sessions that teach children how to protect themselves from mines, UXOs and ERWs through a child-focused approach.
She shares details about a tragic incident, when three local boys tried to open a projectile. One boy was killed instantly and another badly injured. She talks about other cases of children innocently picking up grenades or fuses, only to have their fingers blown off.
“There is no entertainment for kids here. One of the only things they have left to do is go and learn about weapons,” she says.
Last week, Landmine Monitor released the latest figures on global casualties from landmines and improvised explosives. The report shows a record number of child causalities – mostly in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Ukraine.
It’s jarring to see a favourite childhood character, Little Red Riding Hood, teach children about protecting themselves from some of the deadliest weapons of war. Yet, such is the reality in eastern Ukraine.
*UNICEF’s mine risk education programmes in eastern Ukraine are supported by the Governments of Germany, Italy and Japan.
Melanie Sharpe is a communication specialist in the Europe and Central Asia regional office of UNICEF