Reyhanli, Turkey – His team was wrapping up. They had finished for the day.
For hours, the volunteers had combed a strip of land near Idlib almost 25 metres long, in search of landmines. Proceeding centimetre by centimetre, they had removed 42 unexploded mines.
But Colonel Adeeb Ateeq, who defected from the Syrian army in 2012 amid concerns over heavy civilian casualties, knew from experience that there must be another mine in the area. As he contemplated where it might be, a sudden explosion threw him three metres through the air.
As he crashed to the ground on his back, Ateeq looked down. Where his left leg had been, he saw only blood.
“Anyone who moves may step on an unexploded device,” Ateeq told Al Jazeera in an interview from his rented apartment in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, where he has been living since the accident in August 2015. “Children, women, old people – many of them don’t even know what a mine is. They don’t see it until it explodes.”
Ateeq is one of many victims of mine-clearing operations in Syria, where millions of people live with the daily risk of running into unexploded devices. Amid the country’s precarious security situation, international organisations have been reluctant to launch large-scale clearance operations, leaving residents in some areas to take matters into their own hands.
Explosives planted in agricultural fields, next to roads, inside villages and around schools and hospitals can emerge years after the battle ends. The United Nations estimates that it will take decades to clear Syria of all unexploded devices.
According to recent estimates, more than five million Syrians live in areas that are heavily contaminated by unexploded devices, including more than two million children who are at risk of falling prey to explosive remnants of war, such as landmines, cluster munitions and other devices.
Among the victims is Jamila Muhammad, 65, who remained in Syria even after several of her children and grandchildren fled to Turkey. Almost a year ago, in May 2015, she was out herding the family’s small flock of sheep near al-Khalfatli, a small village near the Turkish border.
“I bent down because I saw a pretty flower,” Muhammad told Al Jazeera. “But under it was a mine.”
Muhammad lost the lower part of her right leg in the explosion. She tried to get treatment in Syria, but eventually her son convinced her to go to Turkey to be fitted for a prosthetic limb. After several months of rehabilitation, she is still not used to her artificial leg, she said.
Ateeq is one of the rare Syrian volunteers with professional experience in clearing explosive devices. After defecting from the army, he says he decided to use his expertise to protect civilians from the danger of unexploded devices. He founded the Syrian Centre for Awareness and Demining, where he trains small teams in mine clearance and risk education.
People are killed by explosives every day. I have to help with what I know. That is not a matter of choice.
“We started from zero,” he said. “We were training small groups of volunteers in mine clearance and providing risk education to children … Normally a mine clearance team has protective gear, helmets, advanced tools. We wear T-shirts.”
The group, which now includes more than two dozen volunteers, operates in northern Syria and southern Turkey.
Despite the dangers, this has become a common situation in wartorn Syria, said Sarah Marshall, the programme manager for the UN anti-landmine agency UNMAS.
“Throughout Syria, local communities have been undertaking ad hoc clearance activities, as they see no help forthcoming,” Marshall told Al Jazeera. “Since people have little expertise, the accident rate is high.”
International assistance with the clearance of unexploded devices has been limited for a number of reasons, Marshall said, noting that until recently the only official international clearance operation was in Kobane in 2015.
“Besides general access and security issues, neighbouring countries and [parties to the conflict] see mine action as military activity,” she said. “We are trying to make them understand this is purely humanitarian. It is basic protection of civilians.”
A major issue faced by UNMAS and its 25 international and Syrian partner organisations is that in order to clear some types of explosives, additional explosives are needed.
“We can’t send explosives across the border … and we can’t train Syrians to use explosives. Nobody would accept that,” Marshall said.
As a result, UNMAS has been working with the international NGO Mayday Rescue to train teams from the White Helmets, the Syrian civil defence volunteers, to destroy cluster munitions using flares instead of explosives. The first two teams were deployed in March.
The UN agency is aiming to further expand such operations throughout the year, while also investing in risk education, Marshall said: “We understand that people cannot give up farming, but we can inform them how to mark explosives so they can keep using at least part of their agricultural land.”
Ateeq, meanwhile, says he is ready to go back into the field as soon as he has recovered.
“People are killed by explosives every day,” he said. “I have to help with what I know. That is not a matter of choice.”