Deadly Legacy Haunts Kurdistan

Victims claim government efforts to clear millions of landmines are ineffective.

Deadly Legacy Haunts Kurdistan

Victims claim government efforts to clear millions of landmines are ineffective.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Though much of Kurdistan has enjoyed peace since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, war has left a lethal legacy concealed in its fields, mountains and villages.

Around 3,400 minefields cover an estimated 890 square kilometres - three landmines for every two people in Kurdistan. Thousands may have been defused, but many more remain live, and the casualty toll in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991 - when the region gained de facto autonomy from Saddam’s rule – is put at 3,941 dead and 8,771 injured.

The evidence is everywhere, with thousands of people walking on crutches or using wheelchairs. Of the 4,500 handicapped people in Sulaimaniyah province, 3,000 were maimed by mines, said Omer Kareem, general manager of an agency helping the disabled in the area. Kareem himself, now 29, lost both of his legs to a mine when he was six.

Kurdish authorities have ongoing de-mining operations in the region, and have cleared 220,000 anti-personnel mines and over 900 anti-tank devices since 1991.

But that is only a fraction of the total. During its eight-year war with Iran, Iraq bought 20 million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, laying 12 million of them in the Kurdish region, according to statistics from the region’s demining directorate.

Victims say the government isn’t moving fast enough.

“There’s a large number of mines… but the de-mining organisations have been sluggish in clearing them,” said Gulala Shamal, who lost both legs in an explosion.

Twana Basheer, a manager in the de-mining directorate, attributed the slowdown to the departure of expatriates working for foreign mine-clearing agencies, which began after the US-led invasion of Iraq. “Now we depend on Kurdish experts to clear the mines,” he said.

Basheer explained, “At the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, we were able to clear a large number of mines. But later on, our work came to a halt because the government earmarked special funds and teams for those areas, yet these haven’t been deployed.”

De-mining operations are currently funded in part with money from the Mines Advisory Group, a British-registered charity that trains local people to clear mines, and Norwegian People’s Aid, an organisation that is also involved in mine clearing and awareness programmes.

Difficulties in getting supplies through have also delayed the process, said a government official who asked not to be named. “The de-mining equipment comes from abroad and it takes a long time to get to Kurdistan,” he said.

Villagers sometimes grow impatient and decide to clear the landmines themselves – often with tragic consequences.

Ahmed Osman, 34, now sells women’s clothing in a small shop in Penjwen. Three years ago, he and two friends cleared 20 mines from their village. Finally, one of them exploded, “One of us died, another other had both his legs blown off, and I lost my hand,” said Osman.

A number of agencies, both government and non-government, provide wheelchairs, crutches, prosthetic legs and job training. But those maimed by landmines say the injuries are emotional as well as physical.

Ali Kurdistani, who lost a leg in a mine blast, said his injury has left him reclusive and ashamed. “I can’t play, dance or build relationships with others because I feel a failure deep inside,” he said.

For Aysha Fattah, 43, the pain comes from knowing she will probably never marry.

“When I lost my leg and a hand, I lost my dreams too,” said Fattah, who lives with her brothers in Khanaqeen. “My life has been full of pain and misery. Because of my disability, I lost my suitor and I’m deprived of having a married life.”

Jamal Penjweni is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

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