Left Behind by War: Unexploded Ordnance Keeps Killing Displaced Iraqis
Some 70% of explosive hazards still lie beneath the rubble left by years of battle
The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) this week highlighted the grim situation produced by the explosive remnants of years of battle in Iraq with Islamic State and others.
“The scale, density and complexity of explosive hazards are unprecedented, making Iraq one of the most contaminated countries in the world,” the statement said.
An estimated “70 percent of explosive hazards still lie underneath the rubble,” Pehr Lodhammar, senior program manager of UNMAS in Iraq, was quoted as saying in the statement.
Although Iraqi forces retook the areas under ISIS control in 2017, and US-backed troops dismantled the so-called caliphate’s last bastion, in Baghuz, Syria, in March of this year, the explosive hazards continue to take lives.
Lodhammar explained to The Media Line that UNMAS used the term “explosive hazard” because the devices it was encountering were improvised explosive devices (IEDs) manufactured en masse by ISIS, encompassing a wide range of weapons.
“There is not only the pressure plates [triggered mines] that are typically seen. The IEDs manufactured are much more complex, [which can be set off by things] like trip wires, passive infrared systems and remote-controlled devices. There are also mortar rounds, hand grenades, suicide belts and different types of missiles. Together, this makes the environment different from any environment we’ve worked in,” he said.
Lodhammar emphasized that the 70% figure was just an estimate and that it was impossible to know the exact number of explosives left behind by ISIS.
“Just to give you a feel for this, when we cleared [Mosul’s] Al-Shifa hospital, which was used as an ISIS headquarters, we found over 5,000 explosive hazards,” he said.
Lodhammar added that there were 7.6 million tons of rubble and other debris in Mosul and that UNMAS had cleared 44,000 unexploded pieces of ordnance there so far, including 1,100 suicide belts, many of which were still attached to the corpses of Islamic State fighters.
Salma Oda, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq, underscored to The Media Line that the deadly ordinance wasn’t just a product of the ISIS war.
“Explosives exist everywhere, not only in the areas that were under ISIS control, but also remaining from the Iraq-Iran War [1980-1988] and the First Gulf War [1990-1991]. That’s why Iraq is one of the most contaminated countries in the world,” she said.
Because of the extent of the problem, experts say “risk education” is critical to teach affected communities, such as internally displaced persons (IDPs), what to do when encountering these hazards.
There were 1.9 million IDPs in Iraq as of August 2018, the International Organization for Migration estimates.
Eighteen percent of IDP households that said their members did not wish to return to their area of origin cited the presence of mines as the reason, a National Intentions Survey conducted between July and August 2018 found.
UNMAS delivers educational messages to affected communities in IDP camps, schools and community centers. These messages are also broadcast on television and radio, and printed on taxis and even food packaging.
According to UNMAS’s Lodhammar and ICRC’s Oda, many homes are booby-trapped.
“When there’s an explosive device in a house, very often they’re detonated just by opening the door to a closet or fridge, or from pressure when they’re underneath the floor tiles,” Lodhammar explained.
“There are also instances where, when you open the front door to a home and you detonate an explosive, the house is booby-trapped, so there’s a chain reaction to other houses in the vicinity,” Oda added.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some IDPs are impatient.
“Unwilling to wait for authorities to clear private homes, [they] try to do it themselves, leading to accidents,” Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesman, told The Media Line.
Humanitarian groups have highlighted that it is crucial to clear areas of these explosive hazards in order to facilitate the return of IDPs to their homes.
Sandra Black, communications officer for the International Organization for Migration’s Iraq Mission, told The Media Line there was a long road ahead.
“It is rare that explosive remnants of war contamination present such a direct obstacle on such a large scale to the return of the internally displaced. Much more needs to be done to decontaminate private residences, to allow housing reconstruction to increase in scale,” she stressed.
However, given the unprecedented quantity and quality of these devices, experts project that it will take decades to completely clear Iraq of these dangers.