Muppets teach children a land mine lesson

A British charity helps avert tragedy with a children's video on how to spot mines buried throughout Afghanistan.

"Bang!" The little puppet boy steps on a mine, and now he only has one leg. The Afghan children watching the video at a school on a Kabul hillside gasp.

Puppets have long been used to entertain and to teach children basic lessons such as how to count and the letters of the alphabet.

Now in Afghanistan the creators of Muppet stars Miss Piggy and Fozzy Bear have teamed up with two charities to teach children a lesson in survival: how not to get killed or maimed by the millions of land mines still buried in the Afghan soil.

"The Story of the Little Carpet Boy," loosely based on Pinocchio, is the brainchild of No Strings International, a British charity set up to reach children in war-torn areas and teach them vital life lessons through puppetry.

"It's hard to get a crowd of children to listen to an adult, but the minute you bring a puppet out, kids just light up," says Johnie McGlade, founder of No Strings.

Mr. McGlade worked for more than a year with two of Muppet-creator Jim Henson's original team, Kathy Mullen and Michael Frith, to create a culturally sensitive film using characters from Afghan folklore to teach children about the dangers of minefields.

About 60 Afghans a month are killed or injured by mines and unexploded ordnance around the country, and almost half of them are under 18 years old, according the United Nations Mine Action Center for Afghanistan (UNMACA).

Children are disproportionately vulnerable as they are often sent to collect firewood or herd animals, which puts them at a higher risk for accidents.

Hugo Speer, a star of the British film hit "The Full Monty," journeyed to Afghanistan with No Strings to promote the charity's work and deliver the puppet film and two mobile cinemas to an Afghan charity, the Organization for Mine Action Rehabilitation (OMAR).

The mobile cinemas are motorcycles fitted with a generator and projector screen on their sidecar, and can reach far-flung mountain villages to deliver their lesson.

"These bikes are really a dream come true for us," says Haji Fazel Karimi, OMAR's director, "because we will be able to reach areas that are very remote and teach children with a film they can remember."

Although the film follows a familiar children's programming formula of repetition and features puppets similar to many Western Muppet favorites, the lessons for children living in Afghanistan are far grimmer than any aired on Western television.

Chuche Qhalin, the film's puppet hero, loses an arm and both legs until he has learned his lesson and the children watching have learned what mines look like, where they might be buried, and how to avoid them.

"I liked the film," says Masiha, an 11-year-old girl who watched the film's first screening in Kabul, "and I learned that you should stay away from fields that have red stones. There are mines there. I didn't know that before,"

She also liked the film's happy ending in which Chuche is granted his wish to become a real boy and gets his limbs back.

After two decades of war, Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, a threat that looms in the background while headlines are taken up with the dangers of a resurgent Taliban in the south.

The hill where the Qalai Zaman Khan primary school perches and the film was screened, is one of the few around the Afghan capital that have been totally cleared of mines.

In urban areas around the capital, minefields are marked with painted red stones. But in rural areas overgrown paths are often the only indications of a minefield.

Since 2002, when about 150 to 200 Afghans were killed or injured by mines every month, UNMACA has supervised the clearance of over a billion square meters (247,105 acres) of land, which has lessened the mines' toll.

"Returning refugees are often injured when they try to rebuild their houses in areas which have been mined," says Mr. Karimi.

No Strings is now looking into using the puppet characters to make another video on the dangers of drug use in Afghanistan, which is the world's No. 1 producer of opium and heroin.

"The idea was to create a set of Afghan characters that can be used again and again for different storylines," says McGlade.

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