Saddam is Long Gone, but His Minefields Still Kill
In the spring sunshine on the rolling green pastures along the Iraqi border with Syria, a Kurdish man scans the ground between two red flags. Under the surface, deadly mines lie in wait. As he moves his Vallon mine detector across a patch of grass, the man’s headphones squeal into his ear.
He’s found a contact.
We’re near the village of Shilkye, and we’ve come to observe a team from the Mines Advisory Group, one of the most experienced demining non-governmental organizations working in the region.
Founded by former British Army Royal Engineer Rae McGrath, MAG has been clearing mines across the world since 1989. The deminers have worked in Kurdistan since 1992, continuing even during the 1996 Kurdish civil war.
Unlike elsewhere in Iraq, the task here isn’t to clear improvised explosive devices left by Islamic State. But the work is taking place as a side effect of the war. With so many refugees moving around, it’s vital that MAG clears the fields.
In 2014 alone, there were five accidents in Shilkye due to the explosives lurking beneath the topsoil. In September, a Syrian refugee died from a landmine while working as a shepherd for local villagers.
Alerted to the presence of something metallic in the ground, the deminer peers through his helmet visor. With his full and undivided attention, the man kneels and pulls out a thin rod, known as a mine prodder, and gently probes the grassy area.
Slowly and meticulously, he inserts the rod at an angle — which stops top-down contact with any possible pressure plates that could initiate a detonation. It’s painstaking work, made more so by the weight of his protective equipment.
Kawar Sidiqi, a deminer for three years, says that he knows the job is dangerous, but the biggest day-to-day difficulty is working in the hot weather. During the summer, the deminers often need to leave their base at 3:30 a.m. to beat the heat.
But practical obstacles aside, the deminers working here all seem energized by one unifying sentiment — that they’re working to save lives and help the local population. “When refugees began crossing we were here. If it wasn’t for MAG many would have been dead or injured,” Shakir Hajer — a demining team leader with 15 years experience — says.
“It feels good to protect your people,” he adds. “We’ve found 300 items in this minefield, that’s 300 lives saved. Not too different from the Peshmerga’s job.”
The deminer carries on with his excavation. He alternates scanning with his mine detector, probing the soil and using a small trowel to excavate the patch of earth. He’s methodical.
In this line of work, you have to be.
Deny the enemy ground
If Islamic State is responsible for the refugees, Saddam Hussein is to blame for the mines. This minefield specifically is one of thousands the Ba’athist dictator laid during his 24-year rule.
Saddam’s paranoia and Iraq’s numerous wars and internal conflicts resulting in just about all of the country’s borders becoming infested with mines. A large proportion of these are in Iraqi Kurdistan, one of the most mine-infested regions in the world.
The United Nations estimates there are 25 million landmines buried in the country, although the exact amount is unknown. The Iraqi army during the Saddam era laid most of them.
The Ba’athist regime mined every border of Iraqi-Kurdistan — even its border with the rest of Iraq. The Iraqi army also planted countless minefields within the region to stop attacks by the Kurdish Peshmerga against cities such as Kirkuk.
Basically, if Saddam found a tactical problem, he liked to throw mines at it.
The purpose of any minefield, technically, is to deny ground to the enemy. In military terms, it’s a “force multiplier.” Laying a minefield frees up manpower for more important tasks, as you now need fewer soldiers to watch whatever area you’ve mined.
Minefields are incredibly effectively at providing defenses, but they have lasting and deadly consequences for civilians. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the minefields still occupy some the most fertile agricultural land in the province.
This particular minefield was originally laid in 1978 to stop Syrian Kurds from crossing the border to join with the Iraqi Kurds, who were fighting against the Iraqi regime forces at the time.
Shifting borders, new threats
Work on the clearing minefield started in 2011, but Syria’s civil war made the task considerably more urgent. Syrian Kurds escaping the fighting began moving through the Shilkye area — and its minefields.
That’s when Iraq’s notorious bureaucracy stepped in. The area around the minefield fell under the administration of the Mosul governorate, and Iraqi officials ordered MAG to halt operations.
The officials asserted that MAG did not have the necessary permissions to work on the border. At the time, the responsibility for policing the border fell under the national government.
Instead of being able to clear the minefield, MAG had to settle for a different strategy. They built a bridge across a small river, allowing refugees an alternative route that would not take them through mined areas.
All that changed in June of 2014 when Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
Iraqi army, border troops and police forces left the disputed territories, and Kurdish troops took their place. Unlike the Iraqi border guards, the Kurds understood why the mines needed to go — and MAG resumed work.
The section of the minefield the deminers are working on is about 156,009 square meters in size — part of a belt around 30 kilometers long and a kilometer in depth at its widest point. In some places, the minefield consists of a double belt of mines on either side of a “safe lane” the Iraqi army used to patrol the minefield.
The mine belt is broken down into several zones. MAG is focusing its efforts on a part assigned the highest priority due to its proximity to the local population. Once finished, the deminers will return the land to locals so they can graze their livestock here after more than 35 years.
There are three prevalent types of mines typically found near Shilkye. Two of these are the Chinese Type-72 and Italian VS-50. They’re small anti-personnel blast mines, which incorporate mostly plastic parts — instead of metal — to make detection difficult.
Designed to maim rather than kill, anyone who steps on them will receive horrific lower limb injuries, often necessitating the amputation of feet or parts of legs. But the third type of mine is even more sinister.
The cylindrical V-69 is an anti-personnel bounding fragmentation mine. The head of the device usually sits just above the surface of the ground, like a flower, with tripwires connected to the prongs of the mine’s tilting fuse head. This makes it much deadlier over a larger area than the Type-72 or VS-50.
Once a victim steps on the V-69 — or hits a connected trip wire — a charge propels the mine into the air to a height of 50 centimeters. The mine then explodes, sending around 1,000 pre-cut steel fragments spraying out in all directions.
With a lethal radius of 25 meters, anyone who triggers the mine is certain to be killed with others receiving hideous injuries.
MAG estimates that about 180 people are directly affected by the minefield, mostly from the local village of Shilkye — the nearby settlement most impacted by the mines. But when taking into account passing refugees from Syria, estimates are almost impossible.
“It affects the farmer’s economic situation,” Mahmoud Ahmed, a 43-year-old school guard who lives in Shilkye, tells us. “They can’t make enough money, so shepherds have to travel further to let their sheep graze.”
Mahmoud’s family inherited farming land after his grandfather passed away — but much of it is mined.
He and his family live close to the 30-kilometer-long minefield which starts just a few hundred meters from his door. Off the top of his head, he recalls four people he knows personally who have been injured.
Including his sister Shereen.
Shereen says she was collecting plants for medical remedies — something many of the people in the village do — when the accident happened. “Some sheep were passing by and one stepped on the mine,” she says. “I got fragments in my hands, feet and shoulder.”
Luckily the injuries were not sufficient to warrant a trip to the hospital. Shereen estimates that she knows of around 15 people who have died in the local area by wandering into the minefield.
Like most of Kurdistan’s border villages and towns, Saddam’s troops destroyed Shilkye to make sure the residents would not be able to aid the Peshmerga fighting against the Iraqi army. Many of the villagers returned to their homes to start again after the 2003 American invasion.
But it hasn’t been easy. Besides the threat of death and injury, the villagers are struggling to rebuild their lives even more than a decade after Saddam fell. Some of the villagers never returned, Shereen says, a problem in many districts where mines are still located.
Even without the mines, agriculture is far from a lucrative career in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the cheap price of imports from neighboring Turkey challenge local farmers, making it hard to compete.
Back in the field, the deminer verifies his contact, which turns out to be a piece of wire — possibly part of a trip-wire that was attached to a V-69 bounding mine. Every contact needs to be carefully checked.
At the time of War Is Boring’s visit, MAG had discovered around 339 mines and unexploded ordnance in this particular section of the Shilkye minefield. Once this demining task is finished, the teams will move on to another minefield somewhere else in the country.
No one knows how long the war with Islamic State will last. The only sure thing in Iraqi Kurdistan is that civilians will need the deminers to stay for many, many years to come.