The treacherous battle to free Iraq of landmines

Iraq aims to remove all remaining landmines by 2018, but new explosives laid by ISIL fighters have stymied progress.

Mukhlis Sharif displays a defused anti-personnel mine in the Barozhi Bewas minefield [Martin Bader/Al Jazeera]

Barozhi Bewas, Iraq  In 1991, a few years after the end of the Iraq-Iran war, Ghazi Ahmad Ahmad was working on a pipeline in Bewasi Saro, a small village near the border of Turkey and Iran, when he stepped on a rock and it exploded.

He had stepped on a landmine, triggered by the weight of his body – one of thousands that were laid by the Iraqis during the eight-year war. Ahmad was rushed to Soran Hospital, about an hour from his village and 110km northeast of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil.

“I didn’t want to cut my leg off,” the 62-year-old told to Al Jazeera at his home, surrounded by snowy mountains. “Because I live in a rural area, I didn’t receive any treatment until I got to the hospital. There is still fragmentation inside my leg.”

Ghazi Ahmad Ahmad, a resident of Bewasi Saro village in northeastern Iraq, shows his prosthetic limb [Martin Bader/Al Jazeera]
Ghazi Ahmad Ahmad, a resident of Bewasi Saro village in northeastern Iraq, shows his prosthetic limb [Martin Bader/Al Jazeera]

What was left of Ahmad’s leg was unusable, and he had to get a prosthetic limb. It is now worn and dirty, and Ahmad complains he cannot walk far comfortably.

Since the late 1980s, more than 29,000 people have been victims of landmine accidents across Iraq, according to a 2013 report by Landmine Monitor, which cited the most-recent statistics from Iraqi government agencies. More than 14,000 of the casualties – including 6,000 people who died – were reported in Kurdistan.

I didn't want to cut my leg off. Because I live in a rural area, I didn't receive any treatment until I got to the hospital. There is still fragmentation inside my leg.

by Ghazi Ahmad Ahmad, 62

While the Iraq-Iran war ended nearly 30 years ago, work is still ongoing to decontaminate the land. Very little is known about the impact of uncleared mines on local communities like Ahmad’s.

“Not enough is being done,” he said. “We need more people working on this.”

Iraq is among the countries worst affected by landmines and explosive remnants of war due to decades of conflict and territorial rows. About 1,838sq km of Iraqi territory is believed to be mine-contaminated.

While most residential areas are considered mine-free, the majority of the remaining clearance operations are along mountainous border regions between Iran and Turkey and the Turkey-Syria border. The Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency (IKMAA), run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is responsible for mine action across the region. 

On a recent day in Barozhi Bewas – a minefield in the mountainous region behind Bewasi Saro village, near the Iraq-Iran border – a group of 16 mine clearance workers removed their protective clothing, boiled water for tea and sat down to take in the view during their 15-minute break.

Next to them was a whiteboard, with calculations on the size of minefield left to clear, the number and type of mines found, hours worked, hours lost due to weather conditions, and safety procedures in the event someone was injured. Seventy percent of the 186,000sq m minefield had already been cleared, team leader Dler Yusif Aziz told Al Jazeera.

The mine clearance workers work in two groups of six and a paramedic is assigned to each group. They work 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off.

Aziz said it would take the team another three months to clear the rest of the land, noting the completion of this task would come as a relief to the local community, which has been haunted by a number of preventable accidents and deaths.

A de-miner screens the ground for possible mine contamination [Martin Bader/Al Jazeera]
A de-miner screens the ground for possible mine contamination [Martin Bader/Al Jazeera]

“Four civilians died near their village as they went for a walk in the mountains,” the minefield’s operations manager, Mukhlis Sharif, told Al Jazeera. “Civilians also try to de-mine themselves, and they end up losing legs.”

While the mines were laid more than 20 years ago, Sharif noted, their danger does not deteriorate over time. IKMAA employs three mine risk education teams in affected villages throughout Kurdistan to inform people of the risk of mines. 

In 2007, Iraq signed the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines. Under the convention, Iraq committed to free the country of landmines by 2018 – a task Kurds believe is impossible.

A major barrier preventing the country from reaching its goal is that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is booby-trapping land and buildings with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), said Ako Aziz, director of mine risk education at IKMAA.

“Great work is being done, but the new crisis has added problems,” he told Al Jazeera from his office in Erbil. “The most serious problem is that the fighting is ongoing. The problem of IEDs is going to be big.”

Last October, four mine clearance workers were killed and two seriously injured after an IED detonated in a house in Zumar in northern Iraq. Aziz said no figures were available on the size of land contaminated by IEDs, but estimated that thousands of kilometres were affected.

While IKMAA has been working with the Kurdish Peshmerga to defuse IEDs, work has been limited because of budget constraints and a limited number of people specialising in this work.

“The KRG is not able to increase IKMAA’s budget and recruit new teams. [In addition], we are not specialised in IEDs. We haven’t faced IEDs in other mined areas. We haven’t received any devices to counter IEDs,” Aziz said.

The booby-trapped land is also creating difficulty for families aiming to return home to areas liberated by the Peshmerga.

“Landmines and other explosive remnants of war are a major challenge and will undermine the safe return of thousands of internally displaced persons to their homes,” said David Swanson, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Iraq. “It’s vital that more work is done to address this. A particular and sustained effort will need to be made in order to clear and decontaminate many areas of the country from such devices.”

The booby-trapped land and buildings have also affected the Peshmerga’s progress against ISIL: More than half of the Peshmerga killed during the ongoing conflict have been victims of IEDs. Sharif, who has more than 20 years experience in clearing mines, recently spent two weeks working with the Peshmerga.

“I personally disarmed and destroyed 350 IEDs within two weeks,” he said. “The problem is, not many people are familiar with defusing IEDs. They are much more dangerous. In the end, the civilians are the victims. They can’t return home because of this.” 

Source: Al Jazeera