In the hamlet of Hassan-Jalad, in northern Iraq, almost every house has a tragedy to tell. The mines have mown down a son, a nephew, a brother, when they do not prevent cultivating the fields or grazing animals.
In Iraq, 100 children were killed or injured between January and September because of mines and other explosive remnants of war, according to the UN. With nearly one in four people at risk according to NGOs, the country has one of the highest “contamination rates” in the world.
Iraqi specificity: successive conflicts have left a deadly legacy across the country, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, until the defeat in 2017 of the jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) group.
It was in 2017 that Awad Qado’s family was struck by the explosion of a mine in the hamlet of Hassan-Jalad, bringing together around fifty houses near Mosul, a former jihadist stronghold.
Two of Mr. Qado’s nephews were killed while tending their herd. Her son was injured and a fourth man had his legs amputated. Not to mention the losses among cows and sheep.
“We are afraid for the children. We tell them the roads to take, the places to avoid, we tell them not to pick up what they find on the ground, an electric wire or something,” he says.
In the space of a year, more than 1,500 explosives were found in the area, recognizes Alaa al-Din Moussa, in charge of operations for the private demining company GCS.
“In this region, each house has a story,” he says. “Several children died. Hundreds of animals entered fields and activated explosives.”
– “Contaminated urban areas” –
While waiting to be defused, the finds are placed on desert terrain surrounded by a “STOP” banner. Explosives are categorized: 107mm rockets, 23mm projectiles, VS500 mines.
Mosul, but also the province of Al-Anbar (west), are among the most affected areas, like all the former strongholds of ISIS. By abandoning their strongholds, the jihadists left behind an ocean of mines to slow the advance of Iraqi forces supported by the international coalition.
“There is a strong contamination in urban areas,” confirms to AFP Pehr Lodhammar, head of the UN mine action service in Iraq (UNMNAS).
“The danger makes it much more difficult for people to return to their homes and resume normal life,” he adds, in a country that still has 1.2 million displaced people.
In Iraq, different layers of explosives bear witness to successive conflicts. The Iran-Iraq war, the two Gulf wars, internal conflicts …
Consequently, the border areas with Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia remain contaminated, according to a report by the NGO Handicap international.
“Iraq is considered one of the countries most contaminated by explosive devices in the world,” recalled the report, which mentions “3,225 km2 of land” where explosives would remain.
That is to say a danger for 8.5 million people, in a country of 40 million inhabitants.
The explosives are “anywhere: buried underground, connected to refrigerators, doors, windows, hidden under rubble, in toys, in household appliances,” the report adds.
– “Do nothing” –
An essential challenge: awareness, which allows residents to change their behavior in the face of danger.
Thanks to the sessions conducted with children and adults, there are “success stories”, explained to AFP Ghaith Qassid Ali, of the GCS awareness program in the province of Mosul.
He remembers children playing in a field. “They saw a projectile, remembered the photos a team had shown them and warned us.”
He recognizes the handicap that this phenomenon represents for the economy: “the majority of the inhabitants of this village are farmers, but most of the land is contaminated by explosive remnants of war”.
At only 21 years old, the case of Abdallah Fathi illustrates the tragedy.
In 2014, he was herding a herd when a mine exploded. He lost both his legs, his left hand and several fingers of his right hand.
“Before I worked, now I can’t do anything, carry anything, not even cement blocks,” he laments.
Morale took a hit, he admits. “I stay at home all day, I don’t go out.”