During a blazing battle four years ago, Hasoun Yahya, 46, a married father of five, ran through the streets of Mosul to try to reach his family. Jihadists from the Islamic State group occupied homes and lanes. Danger lurked from every window. As he was yards from his front door, his desperate dash ended in tragedy when a mine exploded in front of him. His son, 7, lay dead in what remained of their home. His children’s screams have stayed with him ever since.
“His head blew up and then smashed into the floor,” Yahya says, wiping away tears. His wife recovered his son’s body. He was lying in her arms, headless. “She told me, sobbing, ‘He is gone.’ Can you imagine what it feels like?”
It was 10:30 a.m. on a hazy day, March 21, 2017. Yahya remembers it perfectly. The shock and adrenaline initially numbed him from noticing his own pain. Shrapnel had pierced his right thigh, and the wound was fast getting worse. He was rushed to the hospital, “but there was nothing to do,” he says, stroking his scars, his hands shaking. “They had to amputate.”
Since mid-2014, Yahya had tried to evade the horrors of the so-called caliphate: its shootings, kidnappings and executions as well as the never-ending fear in which he had lived. Now he had to surrender to it. A dead son, a lost leg and the worry of what might happen to the rest of his family were overwhelming. At any point — from the blue sky or the ground below — death could strike. Fear gripped him like a vice.
More than four years later, the Islamic State has been forced from Mosul and no longer occupies towns or cities anywhere in Iraq or Syria. But its brutal legacy remains, under mounds of rubble, in ruined homes and fields — where bombs and mines left over from the war continue to kill and maim civilians.
“Now, we have to fight a new war, that is, the unexploded ordnance placed by ISIS that still kills people even though the fighting is over,” says Cornelia van Wijk, the physiotherapist in charge of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Mosul, shaking her head as she walks through the corridors of the rehabilitation center.
While doctors visit patients and staff model the casts for prostheses, men and children wait in line for their turn. Their faces are tired, their eyes lost in the void. Wives and mothers sit in silence on the bench outside the door. “Since 2018, we have treated over 1,600 patients,” continues Wijk. “Numbers show no sign of falling.”
According to the latest data on Iraq from iMMAP — the Information Management and Mine Action Programs — from January 2014 to July 2020, there were about 70,000 incidents involving explosive hazards in the country and at least 137,092 casualties from the conflict, including 43,662 victims of explosive hazards alone (16,350 killed and 27,312 injured).
After decades of war and insurrection, dating to the decadelong Iran-Iraq conflict, Iraq remains one of the most contaminated areas with land mines in the Middle East. The war with Iran was particularly savage. In 1980, Saddam Hussein’s ambition to seize new oil-rich territories and destabilize the Iranian theocracy led to the Iraqi invasion of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s land. In Hussein’s pursuit of that aim, border areas on both sides were littered with land mines. Many of those munitions remain today.
The 1991 Gulf War, in which the U.S.-led military coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and Baghdad’s attempts to subjugate the Kurdish population have compounded this situation.
“In the early 1990s, a lot of unexploded ordnance was still lying around the region,” says Maj. Gen. Sabah Hassan Al-Shibli, director of explosives control at the Ministry of Interior in Iraq, from his Baghdad office. “It could be found in hilltop forts, in caches, all along the former front lines. And civilians, often children, were the primary victims.”
Yet the 2003 invasion by the U.S.-led coalition has left the country, especially the central and southern regions, with extensive land-mine and cluster-munition contamination that still have a daily effect on poor and marginalized communities. (Cluster munitions are antipersonnel weapons dropped in large shells that scatter small explosives over a wide area of land.)
The war with the Islamic State has added to the problem, especially in semirural areas near the Kurdistan region — including Anbar, Ninewa, Salah al-Din and Kirkuk. The conflict saw a proliferation of nonconventional mines and booby traps — a throwback to the Vietnam war, which saw thousands of U.S. troops and civilians killed or maimed by booby traps.
“Some of these locally made land mines were designed to be lethal, with a radius of up to 25 meters [82 feet],” says Jack Morgan, Iraq country director for U.K.-based Mines Advisory Group — the largest international NGO in the country — in Erbil. “They are sensitive enough to be triggered by a child but powerful enough to disable a tank.”
While the full extent of explosive ordnance contamination is unknown because of a lack of available data, it is estimated that more than 700 square miles of land is contaminated and around 8.5 million people are at risk because of the contamination.
Cluster munitions are also an ongoing issue.
According to the latest report from the Iraqi Ministry of Health and Environment and the Directorate for Mine Action (DMA) in Federal Iraq, with collaboration from the Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency, as of the end of 2020, cluster munition remnants covered a total area of 69 square miles, making Iraq the fourth most contaminated country in the world.
Remnants of antipersonnel land mines, meanwhile, covered 463 square miles of land (382 square miles in Federal Iraq and 81 square miles in the Kurdistan region). Improvised mines covered a total area of 230 square miles (229 square miles in Federal Iraq and just over 1 square mile in the Kurdistan region).
The scale of land-mine contamination presents such a challenge that the February 2028 deadline under Article 5 of Iraq’s Mine Ban Treaty will not be met. The country acceded to the treaty in 2007 and became a state party a year later with the commitment to stop the use, stockpile and transfer of antipersonnel mines and to destroy all remaining mines by 2018.
However, the Islamic State surge and the military push to claw back ground lost to Islamic State fighters hampered Iraq’s capacity to fulfill its commitments. So in 2017, Iraq submitted a request to extend its land-mine clearance deadline to 2028. But domestic vulnerabilities, a lack of capacity and expertise, and shortages of funding suggests that it is unlikely to meet this deadline as well as a separate commitment under Article 4 of Iraq’s Convention on Cluster Munitions of, which calls for the destruction of all cluster munition remnants by November 2023.
“With our current clearance capacity, we would need 15 to 17 more years,” says Maj. Gen. Ahmed Jihad, an explosives expert at DMA.
According to Iraq’s IMSMA database — the Information Management System for Mine Action — in the past 19 years, Iraq has found and destroyed more than 1 million dangerous items. Among them were approximately 65,000 land mines, 100,000 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and nearly 70,000 clusters and dispensers.
“Mine clearance is a complex activity that requires time and precision. You can’t rush it,” says Jamal Ali, assistant general director of the Sulaymaniyah Mine Action Center (SMAC), as we drive to Penjwin, in northeastern Iraq.
Once a battleground during the war with Iran, the road is now flanked by dry trees. The off-road vehicle slows down before a climb, raising dust in the air. Mountains soar over the horizon.
“Do you see the red triangles placed on the ground?” Ali asks me, looking out the window. “They signal that the area is full of dangers. We have to be careful. The remaining mines could explode at any moment.”
Here, a few miles from the town on a rocky stretch of land, Ali’s men have begun the demining work. It is a speck on a landscape that has seen myriad conflicts throughout the ages. But it’s a starting point for a project that aims to protect at least some of the region’s people, and the men approach the job with enthusiasm.
After getting out of the car, Hussein Mustafa, who has been working for the agency for 14 years, asks me for my name, surname and blood type. “Safety first,” he says while he writes my personal information in a log. “Should a mine detonate, and you should be injured, we must be able to intervene immediately with our medical team. Always remember — stay behind me.”
My feet follow in his footsteps in what appears to be no man’s land, a barren territory where two people lost their lives following an explosion a year ago. Not far from us, a deminer wearing a bulletproof suit and a helmet with a visor is patrolling the soil surface with a metal detector. This method is suitable for detecting old-generation mines; the detectors pick up magnetic fields produced by the metal parts of mines, which are often buried face down.
However, it is up to men to determine a mine’s exact position by prodding the ground with a pointed rigid rod. “A hole is made every centimeter until resistance is encountered. With experience it is possible to determine whether it is a metal fragment, a piece of wood or a stone,” Mustafa explains. Yet, when you are lying on the ground, two spans from a bomb, caution is a must. “The small mines may have undergone a spin. It’s necessary to avoid where the tip of the prodder presses on the upper part. Some mines can hide a second grenade. As soon as they are removed, the grenade explodes,” he says. Then, it’s time for the manual work, slower but more accurate. “The machines are not capable of working on certain types of ground, as well as on mountainous fields, hills or narrow areas. The fingers, instead, can do it and are more precise.” On the other side of the hill, a machine is digging the ground. To date, in this location, SMAC has found over 349 antipersonnel mines and 20 unexploded ordnances.
In all of Kurdistan there are over 7 million land mines, but most of them are located in the Sulaymaniyah province — in the Penjwin, Sharbajar and Pshdar districts — a legacy of the war with nearby Iran. “One-third has been cleared, while two-thirds still need to be cleared,” says Muhsen Abdul Kareem Najeeb, general director of SMAC, from his office in Sulaymaniyah. “Iraq signed the Mine Ban Treaty banning antipersonnel explosives and pledged to clean up the entire region more than 20 years ago, yet less and less funds are coming in from the Kurdistan Regional Government for demining activities.”
According to Siamand Rafiq, a planning manager at SMAC, the budget for an annual investment plan costs around 3 billion Iraqi dinars, or $1.5 million, a figure that the Kurdish government has not been able to support in recent years. “The operation budget, which is around $400,000 U.S., is not enough, forcing 80% of our workforce to stay at home. We would need 10 billion Iraqi dinars a year, or $4.8 million U.S., to get everything done,” he says.
If it weren’t for international donors, their activities would come to a halt. According to the Landmine Monitor, an affiliate of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, in 2020 Iraq received a total of $104.5 million from 18 donors, of which the United States, the European Union, Germany, Japan and Norway contributed the most. However, the figure has almost halved compared to 2017, when international contributions amounted to $203.3 million.
“The COVID-19 pandemic slowed business dramatically and decreased donations, too. But where was the government in all of that?” adds Bahman Othman, a training manager at SMAC since 2003. “The truth is that it favors political interests rather than investing money in humanitarian issues.”
Since 1991 there have been around 14,000 victims of mine and unexploded ordnances in Kurdistan region, according to SMAC data. In the Sulaymaniyah province alone, to date, 5,000 people have lost their lives and 1,500 have been maimed.
Long after the fighting has subsided, land mines not only kill and injure on abandoned battlefields but also impede the return of nearly 1.3 million displaced people to their homes.
For over four years, Rashid Abdullah, a 62-year-old former farmer, has been sharing a tent with his family in the Khazar camp, a dusty plot of land next to a Kurdish military checkpoint in northern Iraq. It was supposed to be a temporary home, but it has turned into a semipermanent solution as the dangers in his hometown of Mosul have not been resolved.
“I can’t wait to go home, but it’s impossible,” he says. “Some families tried to return to the village, but they died from mines near their houses. Do you understand? It’s still a very dangerous place.”
Rashid fled Mosul with his wife and five children after three years of barely surviving under the Islamist militants’ control. It was 2 a.m. on a black night in May 2017. “It was too dark, we couldn’t see anything,” he recalls. At first their steps were slow with a lot of attention to their feet on the ground. Then, in fear of being captured by the Islamic State, they ran in that minefield, amid the roar of explosions.
“Two of my children, two boys, died in the blast,” he says looking down at his lost right hand, ripped off by an unexploded, ground-launched munition in 2003. “Today they would have been 15 and 9 years old, respectively. But they are no longer here. They are gone forever.” With his gaze still lost in the fear of that day, 11-year-old Adnan, the only remaining son, bears the marks of the explosion on his body: a 6-inch scar on the belly, a deep cut on the left hip and another scar on his buttocks. Akrima, the youngest, who just turned 9, will never be able to see well again. And Azar, 15, still has nightmares every night.
Now, thanks to the risk education activities provided by volunteers at the camp, the kids are able to recognize the danger, but the horror of the past lingers. Every step is still carefully considered. Very little in the children’s lives is carefree. Their innocence was lost on the ground in Iraq’s wars.
Rashid’s wife, Hiam, is curled up in the corner and cries over the memory of that night. She touches a scar on her forehead that she sustained after IED shrapnel hit her face. “Here, we feel like we’re in prison,” she says, looking at the iron plates covered with a blue and pink cloth, the walls of their tent. “This is not life. How can I guarantee my children a better future if they don’t even have a roof worthy of a name to sleep under?” In that cramped space, so far from the intimacy of the fireside, despair grows day by day.