Landmines don’t expire: the deadly legacy of war weapons in Kurdistan
Chalak Taha has spent most of the last 27 years searching the mountains for danger. Tucked among dry grasses on a steep hillside outside Wilyawa village in Sulaimani province, a member of his demining team has found one of potentially millions of landmines that still litter the Kurdistan Region.
All nearby movement stops. Lying on his belly in full protective gear on the blistering July day, Taha deftly removes the charge from a VS-50 anti-personnel blast mine in under a minute, holding both the device and its detonator aloft for the team to see.
This remote, barely populated area is a priority because it has already proven deadly. Two men died here, one in 1983 and another in 1991, and two young children, aged 7 and 9, were killed four years later. After their deaths the Kurdistan Regional Government asked the Mines Advisory Group to decontaminate the hills.
Founded in Manchester, England, in the late 1980s, MAG (pronounced “mag” by staff and “em-ay-gee” by everyone else) began working in the Kurdistan Region at the tail end of the Kurdish uprising in 1992.
In a way, the history of landmines in the Kurdistan Region is the history of the region itself: Iraqi forces first used landmines against rebel Peshmerga fighters (their name literally means “those who seek death”) during the Kurdish revolution of the 1960s. Some of their Russian PMD-6 wooden mines are still here, layered among explosives from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Anfal genocide in the later part of that decade, the 2003 US invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, and finally the weapons used by and against ISIS after 2014.
MAG is the largest humanitarian mine action NGO working in Iraq and the only independent charity doing wide scale landmine and improvised explosive clearance in the autonomous Kurdistan Region, where they work closely with the KRG’s Mine Action Agency, IKMAA.
Since 1992, MAG teams have removed more than 170,000 landmines and 18,000 improvised explosive devices, and safely removed and destroyed more than 2 million items of unexploded ordnance. As a result, MAG has been able to release 129 square kilometers of land to its owners, and estimate that around 1,866 square kilometers are still contaminated.
“It is a reasonable conclusion that the Iraqi army laid and abandoned these millions of mines to make large areas of Kurdistan unusable for all time,” MAG founder Rae McGrath wrote in a report for Human Rights Watch in 1992.
Saddam has been gone for 18 years and ISIS has not controlled land in Iraq since 2017, but their occupations endure in the form of weapons that make huge swathes of land uninhabitable. Iraq is probably the most mined place on earth, followed by Afghanistan, although without official records it’s impossible to say for sure.
The Italian-made mine Taha recovers was laid there to maim, not kill, with the idea being that it would take one Peshmerga fighter off the battlefield with at least two of his comrades carrying him. Other devices, like the pronged Valmara 69 bounding anti-personnel mine, are designed to jump out of the ground and then explode, killing as many people as possible. Both are found throughout Sulaimani and other parts of Kurdistan.
Seven Valsella executives were convicted in 1991 of illegally exporting 9 million landmines to Iraq over three years through a shell company created in Singapore for that purpose.
More than 20 years ago, in 1998, the United Nations estimated there were more than 10 million landmines in the Kurdistan Region and huge amounts of unexploded ordnance, or UXO, the technical term for active but forgotten remnants of war. These included some 8 million antipersonnel mines and another 2 million designed to destroy tanks. Landmines are not unique to Iraq, but what makes their presence in Kurdistan especially destructive was they were intentionally laid to control population movements and eradicate entire communities.
Human Rights Watch said in 1992 that Iraqi forces made no maps of where the mines were placed, but many were spread across farmland and pastures. Landslides and winter floods over the following decades have swept surface mines closer to the villages. Kurdistan is still so heavily contaminated that MAG’s hotline gets phone calls every week about a new discovery in some village or field.
Education in the local communities is critical to help the teams map the remaining minefields and to save lives. A key part of MAG’s work is outreach – often door-to-door – to teach people about the destruction these old weapons can cause, where they may be, and what to do when they’re found.
In parts of Hamdaniya district in the Nineveh Plains near Mosul, where ISIS boobytrapped homes and mined areas along the front with the Peshmerga, MAG posters at village entrances remind people of the lingering danger. Liaison teams find young people in schools, religious communities through their leadership, and the country as a whole with social media ads.
Resurrecting Wilyawa village
It is thanks to the outreach programs that even young children can identify and avoid the mines and mortars. Awin, a 14-year-old shepherd girl who MAG’s local community liaison Gona Hassan calls “our hero,” is especially adept at spotting and alerting the team to explosives lurking around Wilyawa.
Tucked in the Zalan subdistrict of Sulaimani, Wilyawa was first mined in 1986 during an especially bloody period of the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqi Army built a base at the top of the mountain and salted the earth below with landmines, possibly contaminating as much as a million square meters (a square kilometer) spread across two villages, including within steps of the main road.
Just eight families live here now – about 50 people, far short of the 250 who used to call the area home, although more want to come back when it’s safe.
When people first began to return after 1991 they didn’t know their fields and orchards were full of explosives. Sadiq Sadq Hassan, now 77, lost part of his leg to a mine that year while checking on his fruit trees.
Knowing the danger, Hassan said he tried to skip across it on the rocks. Under one, however, lay a mine.
His toes were blown off immediately. Hassan then had to crawl 10 meters back to reach his two brothers, who had also come up from the village but stayed outside the orchard. He was evacuated by tractor to Sulaimani city, where he waited for nearly 10 hours to see a surgeon and woke up to find he’d lost half his leg.
Barely a week later, the village head, or mukhtar, Hama Saeed Abdulqader, lost his brother. The man had gone to see what was left of his fruit trees; it was 27 years before his watch was found in the orchard by a MAG deminer named Bakhtiar Mohammad.
Mohammad, now 46, told Kurdistan 24 that he wanted to be a deminer even before MAG came to Kurdistan. Sangaw, his village, was completely saturated with landmines, making it impossible to even use the roads, let alone return to farming. He’s worked with MAG for a decade, helping to make the countryside safe not only for his own family, but for people he may never meet.
For the mukhtar’s family and their neighbors, there is a pride in returning home to areas once overrun by Saddam’s army, but it is also a necessity.
“Before the war, our village was very beautiful, but when we returned everything was destroyed,” Abdulqader said.
“The landmine that killed my brother – that land is now free of mines, but there are other parts, like where the two little children died, that land should be cleared and not left behind.”
A mix of fragrances in the minefields hints at the forbidden trees – peach, pear, fig, and even plum – but where the community used to export fruit and nuts to southern Iraq, they now have to turn to imports from Iran and Turkey.
Most people from Wilyawa fled the war in 1983 and found work as day laborers in Sulaimani city, but their very identities are rooted in the countryside. It’s where their fathers and grandfathers raised sheep, and they are eager to return to a self-sufficient life in the mountains. Some have already rebuilt their destroyed homes, but need safe land to graze their animals and to collect herbs, fruits, and nuts for meals and even for prayer beads.
To help protect this way of life, MAG teams never cut down a tree, they say, just trim back the branches so deminers can search the undergrowth.
It is a long process to return contaminated land to a community. Wilyawa’s hills are steep and the land so heavily mined that it requires manual clearance rather than the armored bulldozers used elsewhere.
MAG demarcated the minefields in 1992 and started clearance in Wilyawa in 1998, but had to suspend operations in 2003 when Kirkuk became a priority for the US forces fighting Saddam and the funding shifted. Deminers returned in 2017 and have methodically cleared fields as the seasons allow, starting from the bottom of the village and extending to the sides and key points like paths to water. They handed back another section of land in June after recovering more than 1,800 mines.
In 2014, the year ISIS overran Iraq, parties to the UN Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (more simply known as the Ottawa Treaty) committed to total landmine clearance by 2025. Sixty-two states, including Iraq, are still working towards that goal and most have asked for extensions.
With two teams – the current staff levels around Wilyawa – MAG estimates it can clear about a square kilometer in five years, meaning Wilyawa alone could be contaminated for another decade.
The mukhtar, 66, vows that he will outlast the mines.
Nearby Biwrey has been lucky that no one died. The village was a frontline in the Iran-Iraq War and the Iraqi Army mined it in 1984 to stop the Iranians coming up from the valley to the east. The minefield is located in the village itself, with some explosives planted just 5 meters from a home, and there are another eight minefields around it.
The teams have to move 2 meters of soil – going much deeper than the usual 13 centimeters – because landslides over the years have shifted the earth.
Despite the lack of deaths, there have been livestock injuries, and nine people in surrounding villages were killed by mines. People who live in Biwrey have to contend with the persistent threat even as they try to access the village’s main water tank on a precipice between strips of contaminated land.
It’s mid-July, and MAG estimates they will be able to finish clearing the 34,000 square meter field by the end of the summer.
A delicate clearance
The bulk of the ordnance found in Biwrey is Italian landmines used by the Iraqi Army, including VS-50 anti-personnel blast mines and the later TS-50.
Both are about 90 mm in diameter, roughly the circumference of a man’s watchband, but the VS-50 have more metal content, making them easier to detect. Landmines have no expiration date – the explosives are as dangerous as the day they were laid, and possibly even more so as rust and shifting landscapes have made them more volatile.
But no two situations are the same, and MAG has weapons in its own arsenal: human, canine, and machine.
In areas such as Biwrey where there are too many minerals in the soil for ground detectors to be effective, the process can be started with the armored excavators. That requires digging up huge amounts of earth, sifting it for mines and later either returning it to the field or, if farmers prefer, removing the dirt entirely. (In this way some of the land is actually made more efficient.)
Clearance with armored excavators – mechanical clearance in MAG parlance – is “ground preparation.” The final, more delicate clearance must be done by people.
MAG also has a lively pack of Belgian Malinois dogs who are trained in Eastern Europe before moving to headquarters in Chamchamal. Once deployed in the field the dogs can detect mine vapor from up to two meters away, or 50 cm if there’s no wind.
Specialist IED dog teams are used in clearance in Sinjar, where they can detect plastic, battery, and metal components, the myriad parts of ISIS’s makeshift explosives which demand a very different approach from the manufactured mines.
Where the land is too dangerous for dogs or the terrain too tricky for machines, people do all the work. Covered head-to-waist by heavy protective gear (in 2021, most of the world is now familiar with the idea of PPE), human deminers like Bakhtiar spend up to six hours a day in the minefield, carefully searching for mines and UXO on or under the soil with hand-held detectors.
The organization has meticulous rules in place to keep everyone alive, including a sophisticated system of colored sticks to delineate which areas are safe and which pose a hazard. Even the off-site areas where the team eat and rest are delineated with white (meaning safe) markers while test areas are outlined in red, a warning.
Khalid Mohammad, a team leader, has spent 27 years with MAG, joining in 1994 after he saw firsthand the injuries caused by leftover ordnance in Sulaimani.
“Fear doesn’t come from the job, because I’ve learned since the beginning, the way I was trained, to protect myself. If we follow [the procedures] that we have been taught, we are 100 percent safe,” the 55-year-old said in an interview outside the Wilyawa field.
“The fear comes from if we are not here anymore. If MAG is not here anymore, the danger for the people is what frightens us more than defusing bombs.”
In a vast expanse in the Laylan subdistrict early one morning, a MAG team prepared to destroy what was collected over the previous week. The policy is to destroy collected ordnance once a week unless a device is too unsafe to move, such as a heavily degraded mortar or “no-touch mines” like Russian PMN blast mines, which are destroyed on the spot.
MAG has large scale operations clearing IEDs in federal Iraq, but the army has to destroy ordnance there, which causes delays. In Kurdistan MAG coordinates with IKMAA, which verifies the clearance process and oversees destruction.
Working early before the temperature climbs too high, the team packs 30-year-old ordnance with plastic explosives and binds the mines and mortars together. Earlier in the morning they dug a deep pit, one of many that dot the hill.
MAG shuts down the main road and posts sentries at four points each about 1 kilometer from the blast site. The nearest hospital is about 25 kilometers away in Kirkuk; it's to everyone's benefit to stick to the protocol.
Two IKMAA auditors called quality assurance personnel are present to make sure all the numbers match up. They oversee the last preparations before everyone draws back, save for one member of the team who stays behind to make the final connection.
Viewed from a sentry point, the detonation is executed perfectly. The team call out final checks on walkie-talkies, count down, and then someone pushes the button. The initial, contained explosion is followed by a much larger, somewhat startling, blast that ejects metal and dirt high into the air.
Conscious of the environmental impact of both the weapons and the elements of their necessary destruction, MAG’s team will later return and dig out the pit, collect any metal fragments, and bring them back to Chamchamal.
Then came Covid
Just like it interrupted nearly everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted landmine clearance in the Kurdistan Region last year. It forced the evacuation of all but a core team, and lockdown meant deminers were unable to get out on the ground.
Critically, the pandemic disrupted projects; in Iraq MAG relies on grants, most covering a period of years, from the United States, European Union, and a half-dozen other governments – Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden (perhaps ironically, given its Manchester origins, not the United Kingdom, which has historically funded mine action in Iraq through the United Nations).
MAG is privileged in this way as multi-year funding is not common in the mines action sector, explained Iraq country director Jack Morgan. Grants that last longer than the typical 12 months are especially important as they allow the organization to better hire, plan operations, and generally “be more strategic,” he said.
The global crisis forced some governments to turn inward, and Morgan said many re-examined their overseas development budgets. One donor decided not to renew a grant, and another program ended without an extension, but the majority of MAG’s partners were happy to re-evaluate the end dates, particularly the European Union and Germany, he said, and some that paused their funding have resumed it as the pandemic eases.
Ultimately, the majority of MAG’s donors were able to work around the unforeseen delay to project implementation and provide funding to allow teams to resume work after the lockdown was lifted.
Just as ISIS boobytraps forced MAG to look at explosives differently, COVID forced it to reassess how it does community education. Instead of engaging communities in large groups, the highly contagious virus meant a shift to carrying out some activities remotely, such as meeting people online or over the phone. Morgan said they even considered driving around villages with megaphones to get out safety warnings, and went as far as recording messages.
“Given the current restrictions on social distancing, we have had to conduct sessions using smaller groups,” Morgan said, as the digital aspect has taken off.
MAG is now working in partnership with the US government and Facebook to do more risk education online. The US government is the longest running donor in Kurdistan funding legacy landmine clearance, alongside multi-year support from the Dutch, Swedish and German governments.
‘We will stay until the job is done’
The Kurdistan Region is a MAG success story, and the organization has taken the lessons learned in these mountains to more than 60 other countries around the world. They can respond to a mine report within hours, and say there is no explosive that cannot be cleared.
MAG has around 800 staff in Iraq and 5,200 in 27 countries, and many of its international technical staff have brought their diverse experiences to several countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Across the Sahel and in northeast Nigeria, where ISIS is using tactics similar to those seen in Iraq, MAG teams can respond with the knowledge gained from places like Sinjar and Hamdaniya as well as other countries.
Although international staff may deploy to a country during an emergency, MAG’s policy is to recruit people from contaminated areas. More than 97 percent of staff in the Iraq program are Iraqi nationals, and 30 percent work in Kurdistan Region operational areas, while the other 70 percent work in federal Iraq. In Sinjar, many MAG employees are Yezidi. For the community liaison teams especially, it is important to “have people who the community will listen to and trust,” Morgan said.
Women have worked in MAG’s advance teams since 1997. Although the organization freely admits there are not yet enough women in senior technical positions in Iraq in general, some of the demining teams are entirely female, and women are dog handlers and deminers, clear IEDs, and operate armored excavators. Some women work alongside men in mixed teams, and some of the team leaders are female.
The worry is that there is a meager appetite internationally for funding legacy clearance and that funding for clearance in the Kurdistan Region is less available than for the rest of the country. A child’s toy that ISIS turned into a bomb makes for a better headline than a 40-year-old rusty landmine on an empty hillside. As the largest humanitarian mine actor in the autonomous region, MAG has continued to lobby for further international support.
“The emergency phase is not as intense as it was, but there really has to be a sustained increased support for mine action, because it’s the first step to recovery,” Morgan said.
“It’s not possible to focus on education or job creation when you’ve still got fields that are full of IEDs.”
In the Kurdistan Region, “you can stand on a hilltop and look out and see this immense beauty, but it’s really disheartening to know that swathes of it are inaccessible,” he said.
Kurdistan’s fledgling tourist industry is hindered as well because mines still contaminate the best hiking and rafting areas.
“You still see the red triangles out on the hilltops when you’re walking around, and you see kids running around there, and it’s such a shame that people can’t go there,” Morgan lamented.
The scale of contamination in the Kurdistan Region “is off the chart,” he said, noting that the Falklands was declared mine-free last November, 38 years after the end of a conflict that lasted for just a few weeks. Kurdistan, with its layers upon layers of mines, unexploded ordnance, and boobytraps, needs to be a priority so people can resume their lives before another 30 years pass.
COVID-19 funding cuts forced MAG to make redundancies and cut demining teams. Although many have been rehired and the organization wants to bring back the others, having fewer people means it will take longer to clear these mountains.
As the Kurdistan Regional Government encourages employees from the bloated public sector to return to farming to end the region’s dependence on oil revenues, safe and productive land is more essential than ever.
“We were the first ones here,” Morgan said. “We will stay until the job is done.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how many mines or IEDs are cleared. “It’s not about the number of mines. It’s about the land that’s been affected, that’s been contaminated,” said Salaam Mohammed, who joined MAG in 1992 as a deminer and is one of the organization’s most senior staff in Kurdistan.
It makes little difference whether a field has one mine or 100 if people cannot go there, he said.
“The important part is to save lives by returning land safely to people.”