Basra Plagued by Mine Menace

UN critical of pace of landmine clearance, warning it’ll be decades before targets met.

Basra Plagued by Mine Menace

UN critical of pace of landmine clearance, warning it’ll be decades before targets met.

Sadiya Khalaf Lafta limped over to her friend’s wedding, knowing she has little chance of getting married herself, despite her good looks. Her mother says she wept while the guests ululated in celebration.

“What good is a one-legged woman to any man?” Lafta asks, having stepped on a landmine while herding sheep near the Iranian border 15 years ago. She is still haunted by the memory of seeing her limb blown off before she blacked out.

Lafta’s village, Jurf al-Milh, meaning “salt bank” in Arabic, lies on the eastern shore of the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the province of Basra.

The area is littered with millions of unexploded ordnance – mainly landmines and cluster bombs from recent conflicts.

Iraq is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world and has made little progress towards removing them.

A report released this week by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and Iraq’s environment ministry warned that the country is unlikely to meet its commitment to eliminate all landmines by 2018.

Iraq is estimated to have 20 million landmines and 2.66 million cluster bombs spread out over more than 1,700 square kilometres. Only 20 square kilometres have been cleared by demining organisations since Iraq signed up to the UN’s Mine Ban Treaty in February 2008.

The UN estimated that more than 1.6 million people are affected by the landmines. UNICEF reported that one million children are at risk.

Paolo Lembo, UNDP’s country director for Iraq, said in a statement that the government “will take decades to clear all mines and unexploded ordnance”, given its current capacities.

According to Ala Majid, director of Al-Rafidain Demining Organisation, an Iraqi NGO, landmine removal work ground to a halt last December because of conflicts between the defence, interior and environment ministries over who was in charge.

But news agencies have reported that the ministry of defence halted demining operations over concerns that the explosives were being sold to insurgents.

The Basra region has about seven million landmines, Majid said. His organisation has an annual budget of 2.2 million US dollars.

He estimated that only ten per cent of landmines have been cleared, despite efforts by non-governmental organisations and support from the UN over the past five years. Majid predicted the region will not be rid of its landmines before 2030.

The area, once famous for the cultivation of palm trees, has been cursed by its proximity to the Iranian and Kuwaiti borders. Much of the farmland is now mined. Even new reconstruction projects – such as a water treatment plant in Basra - are on hold because of landmines and other unexploded ordnance, the UN agencies say.

Abd al-Mutalib Abd al-Dyim, head of the Iraqi Society for Mine Removal and Land Reclamation in Shatt al-Arab county, estimated that 400 of the 2,500 people living in the area are landmine victims. Most of them are women and children, he said.

The landmines were first laid during the Iran-Iraq war. “They have threatened people’s lives ever since,” Dyim said.

Shatt al-Arab residents are traditionally shepherds. In recent decades, they have adopted a profitable yet deadly trade, becoming expert at dismantling abandoned weapons to recycle as scrap metal.

“It was not uncommon for a man to take home and disassemble rockets in front of his own family,” Dyim said. “There are a lot of stories here about the catastrophic accidents that occurred as a result."

Abu Mohammed, a man with an artificial leg and the battered face of a smallpox victim, is not yet 50 but looks at least twenty years older. He lives in a small, mud house among narrow alleyways dotted with heaps of garbage and filthy pools of water.

Chain-smoking throughout the interview, Abu Mohammed said he had made a living ransacking abandoned military positions during the UN-imposed sanctions in the 1990s.

“That was the only job available to us,” he said. “One day, despite all my caution and experience, I got caught in one of those minefields and the blast damaged my eyesight and my leg.

“Two years later, my son Mohammed also lost a leg looking for scraps from the war. And then my younger son Nizar lost both his legs while shepherding the only three lambs we had left from the flocks of the good old days.”

The interview with Abu Mohammed was interrupted by the angry cries of a woman inside his house. “What good have these people done, showing up with their cameras to photograph us when we can barely afford our bread?” she said.

Another woman responded in a louder voice, “Shut up you fool! Some good may come of this. Let’s wait and see. We have nothing to lose.”

Abu Mohammed chuckled, and explained, “My wives never stop bickering.”

Iyad Jiri al-Canan, a local sheikh and member of a demining committee, said the minefields became a source of livelihood for scavengers after the first Gulf War in 1991, when the Iraqi government began buying scrap metal from its citizens.

Until then, he said, the minefields had been largely cordoned off – though victims were reported as early as the 1980s.

Canan, who lost a leg in a landmine explosion, said his artificial limb was not well made and he cannot walk properly. He expects to wait a year for a replacement.

The Centre for Artificial Limbs in Basra was established in 1995 to provide aid to landmine victims. It is the only centre of its kind in southern Iraq and has about 600 people on its waiting list.

Dr Kamal Yacoub, the centre’s director, says it is not equipped to cope with the demand.

“The centre produces 50 to 60 artificial limbs a month on average and can serve the same number of handicapped people, about 70 per cent of whom are landmine victims,” he said.

The centre has also helped landmine victims with micro-financing projects, enabling them to invest in small businesses and raising livestock. Sewing machines are available for maimed women.

Lafta tried to start a sewing business at home with seed money provided by the centre. “But the family was always in need and it did not take long before the money was all gone,” she said.

Ali Abu Iraq is an IWPR-trained journalist in Basra.
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