CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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De-Mining in Iraqi Kurdistan: The Wages of Fear

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 de-mining"The war continues for us, our ennemy left behind a different ennemy when he left our territory", says the mayor of Chwarta, a small town north of Suleimania, in Iraqi Kurdistan. The ennemy was Iraq and later Iran. And the "ennemy they left behind were landmines, millions of mines, which have killed 3.500 and maimed 6.500 Kurdish civilians during the last ten years.

The Iraqi army laid mines to protect itself from advancing Iranian forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict. Landmines were also used by Iraqi forces to prevent Kurdish "peshmergas" (freedom fighters) from moving freely around terrain which constituted a bear perfect hiding place for guerrilla troops. Additionally, the Iraqis believed the laying of mines around fields and fresh water springs would prevent the Kurds they had managed to drive out of their homes from returning.

De-miningMost of the minefields laid against the Iranians were set up as a fence and surrounded by barbed wire. The Iranians also laid mines to protect their positions. When the Iranian army left, the Iraqis did not remove the mines. When the Iraqi army left after the "intifada" in 1991, the Kurds took away the barbed wire. So today nobody knows exactly where the minefields are located.

Dashti Kharman is a small Kurdish village, in the district of Nalparez, near Chwarta. About 35 Kurdish peasants families lived there until 1978 when their village was destroyed by Iraqi army bulldozers and explosives. During the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) the area became a battlefield everyone left. By the end of 2.002, four families had come back after the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a British NGO, had cleared 15.000 sq metres -- about 3 acres. But life in Dashti Kharman remains dangerous: the village is still surrounded by 12 minefields.

Cow Boy de-miners

victim of mineAhmed Ali, the first local to return, lost his foot in 1994. He had paid local deminers -- "cow boy de-miners" -- to clear his land. But they did not detect all the mines, some of which were hidden deep in the ground. When Ahmed Ali began ploughing his land in order to plant crops, a mine exploded, ripping off his foot. Still, he says he is "happy to be home again, living on land which belongs to my family, in the place where I was born".

And for Ahmed Ali and his family, it is the end of a long story of deportations. After his house was destroyed in 1978, he was resettled by the Iraqis in a "collective town" in Nalparez until 1983, when the Iranians invaded the area. Later, the Iraqis destroyed the town and transferred the whole population to a new "collective town" near Said Saddiq. In 1988 a new deportation took place, and Ahmed Ali and his family were forced to go and live in the collective town of Barika, near Arbat. While the family was living near Arbat in 1991, Kurdistan was liberated and Ahmed Ali decided to go back to his home.

Today, he is the richest man in the village. He has four cows and 100 sheep, his house is equipped with a generator and he has a TV set. But he does not deny that he met strong resistance from his family, especially from his daughters: "We are in the middle of nowhere", complains Amina, aged 19; "I cannot go to the bazar, I cannot visit friends". And because of the location of the village, Amina had to stop going to school, after two years of primary school. But what most worries Ahmed Ali is the future of his sons: "If they don’t marry here, it will be a problem when I get old"...

In addition to Ahmed Ali’s family, three others have resettled in Dashti Kharman, and a further 20 or so families come to the area on a seasonal basis to cultivate their land, living under makeshift shelters from spring to autumn. They would all love to rebuild their homes there if only they had money, and if there were a school and a clinic. But they refuse to give up their land: "We never sell our land, we depend on it. It is the source of our life and our elders were buried here", says Khalil, who lost a leg in a landmine accident and who lives in a very simple house, with a single closed room for winter, and a verandah for summer. "We have nothing", he says, "we have no electricity, no TV, no animals, we have to walk 10 minutes to get water. we get our food from (SCR) 986. In the winter we live like bears, in snow up to the waist, but life is better here. We do not need money".

MAG's impressive work

Presiding a ceremony for the handing over of a piece of cleared land to one of the villagers, Michael Parker, MAG’s representative in Iraqi Kurdistan, reminded the audience that since 1992 MAG had cleared 182 minefields, clearing a total area of 6m sq metres, and destroying 90.000 mines. It sounds impressive, but in fact it is merely a drop in the ocean compared to the total mined area -- 38m sq metres -- in Charbajer district, where Dahsti Kharman is located. And 6m sq metres is still only 600 sq hectares.

One has to watch de-miners in action to understand why their dangerous work proceeds so slowly. In Dashti Kharman they work with a metal detector. When the detector signals a mine, the de-miner calls a supervisor, a de-miner grade one, who checks the ground with the metal detector to verify that a second mine is not hidden near the detected mine. Then the de-miner proceeds carefully probing the area with a spike to locate exactly where the mineis and subsequently to remove it. This is relatively easy to do on soft land, but it is difficult on hard and rocky terrain. Each spot where a mine has been removed is marked with a white picket, to allow MAG de-miners to project the lay out of the minefield. Patches of land which have not been de-mined are surrounded by red pickets.

In many areas, especially around Penjwin, where intense fighting took place, there are so many fragments of shrapnell on the ground that de-miners cannot use metal detectors which continuously read the presence of metal pieces. In such cases they must rely on careful prodding with spikes.

A day to de-mine a sq metre

It takes a whole day for a de-miner to clear a sq metre, and one wonders how they are not overcome by boredom and a fatal carelessness. When dealing with mines, if one makes a mistake, the first one is also generally the last one.

Paid $300 a month -- a huge salary in Iraqi Kurdistan, where a teacher is paid between $20 and $30 -- the de-miners are usually middle aged Kurds who do this dangerous work because it is the only way to sustain their family. Some of them are saving money to emigrate; others to get married or to build a house. Most admit they have no other option. They know the work is dangerous, some of their colleagues will have had an accident and lost an eye or a hand -- it is a Kurdish version of the wages of fear.

But, as the mayor of the small town of Nalparez puts it, "Kurdistan is not an industrial country. Our people are working in agriculture, grazing their herds. And mines have a bad impact on their economy".

MAG is not the only organisation doing de-mining in Kurdistan: UNOPS, a UN agency, also operates a big program ($30 Million in 2002). But MAG was the only agency working in a 5 kilometers strip along the border where UN agencies were not allowed by the Iraqi central government to do de-mining. And the best agricultural lands and many springs are located in this area. Limping on his new prothesis, Khalil takes us to the terrace in front of his house to admire the landscape and asks us proudly: "Can you imagine a more beautiful place to live"?

(The Middle East magazine, August/September 2003)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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