A small pile of stones in a field may look harmless to the casual observer, but they are a marker for a real danger in Iraqi Kurdistan. Land mines and other explosive remnants of war litter the country from decades of conflict.
“I don’t think mines have been used like this anywhere else in the world,” Sean Sutton, photographer and international communications manager for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), told Al-Monitor. There are an estimated 314 million square meters (121 square miles) of contaminated land across Iraqi Kurdistan, dating from the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam Hussein’s campaign against the Kurds.
When the Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Authority (IKMAA) consolidated in 2012, they were able to provide the resources and funding to clear about 1 million square meters (247 acres) of contaminated land annually.
“It means we will need 300 years [to clear all the land],” Sabah Hama-Khan, the director general of the Sulaimaniyah Mine Action Center told Al-Monitor. Since then, Hama-Khan said clearance rates have increased, from 3 million square meters (741 acres) to 5 million (2 square miles) to 13 million (5 square miles) in 2013.
Clearing landmines has become a business here, with humanitarian and commercial clearance operators working with the government to reduce the size of contaminated land. But it has also become deeply politicized, since money for clearing mines relies on external sources of funding.
The central government in Baghdad has been holding back Iraqi Kurdistan’s budget for months, meaning government workers across the country are unpaid and IKMAA is still working off last year’s budget. They cannot continue clearance work next season without the funding they require to pay commercial operators.
Tim Kirby, the plans and development manager for Sterling Global Operations, a commercial clearance operator, acknowledges the lack of budget could adversely affect next season. Commercial clearance operators like Sterling bid on fields to clear based on areas the government decides are priorities. “It’s an industry and it’s a skill,” Kirby told Al-Monitor.
His company has been able to clear almost 14 million square meters (5.4 square miles) of contaminated land in the last two seasons and is working on a large minefield on the slopes of Iraqi Kurdistan’s highest mountain, in preparation for the creation of a national park.
While national budget issues do not affect humanitarian clearance operators, these organizations continue to have difficulty as well, because Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and gas revenues put it into the bracket of a middle-income country.
This means that no matter how devastating its land mine contamination is, some international funders believe support should be prioritized toward more "developing-world" nations. Clearance for oil and gas development is not included toward humanitarian clearance obligations and is separately controlled by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Iraq signed the Mine Ban Treaty in 2007, which pledges to not use, produce, transfer or stockpile anti-personnel land mines, to clear all contaminated land within 10 years and to provide assistance to land mine survivors. However, Iraqi Kurdistan’s precarious position as a semiautonomous state means despite not signing the treaty, it is still required to meet treaty obligations.
Local government authorities are frustrated by the federal government in Baghdad’s lack of assistance in funding clearance and in providing support or assistance in getting rid of landmines, especially when so many land mines are leftover from the Iran-Iraq war and from Saddam Hussein’s regime: “In 20 years, we cannot [clear all the land],” Hama-Khan said. “Kurdistan didn’t sign, Iraq did.”
Land release — the process of clearing land contaminated with land mines — is meant to be evidence-based. “Here, most of that evidence has been lost in time,” Kirby wrote in an email. The vast majority of land mines and other explosive remnants of war being cleared by commercial and humanitarian companies were laid in the decades prior to 2003.
But the latest outbreak of conflict across northern Iraq has brought the danger of land mines and other improvised explosive devices to the forefront. The Islamic State (IS) is known for leaving elaborately constructed booby traps in the houses and villages it vacates, and the Kurdish peshmerga lack the skills they require to dispose of these dangers.
MAG has cleared hundreds of pieces of unexploded ordnance, landmines and other explosive remnants of war from sites being prepared as refugee camps in the past few months. MAG, as well as IKMAA, are working hard to spread awareness regarding these dangers to people displaced into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. “Most people know the dangers but don’t know how to behave,” Mohammad Raouf, director for Mine Risk Education with the Sulaimaniyah Mine Action Center told Al-Monitor.
This is unfortunately true across the region. Refugees and displaced persons fleeing from major conflict areas such as Kobani often have to cross heavily mined areas in their attempt to find safety — there have been up to 1,000 land mine accidents in that area alone so far, according to MAG.
Villagers on the Iranian border where Sterling Global Operations is currently clearing their large minefield have been taking the threat into their own hands for years. So despite the increasing use of land mines to the west, “I don’t think this is wasted clearance,” Kirby said. There were at least four deadly accidents in this area before clearance began last year. The tomato farmers around Haji Omaran, like many other villagers across the country, continued to defuse the landmines they found, impatient with waiting for official clearance.
Determining official numbers of casualties due to land mines is difficult as well. Police and hospitals are responsible for accident records, but they are generally believed to be underreported. This has an impact on acquiring annual humanitarian funding, as a decreased number of accidents are usually understood to mean the size of the threat has diminished.
With new evidence that in addition to the already contaminated land across the region IS is creating fresh dangers on Iraqi Kurdistan’s one cleared border with Iraq, land mines and other explosive remnants of war will continue to endanger civilians. “My goal was to save lives. … We can’t clear [all land mines] in one or two years, we need a long time,” Hama-Khan said. “We must make a plan to save [the] lives of people.”