Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.
A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq
ZAKHO, IRAQ // Omer Hassan knows only too well about the dangers of landmines.
When he was 21, part of his left leg was blown off while he and other volunteer members of the Kurdish Peshmerga were clearing a field near his hometown of Qaladiza, north of Sulaymaniyah, not far from the Iranian border.
Two decades later and despite his initial fear that he would never walk again and a complaint that he has to stuff his left shoe because the foot on his latest prosthetic leg is too small, Mr Hassan scrambles up and down Kurdistan’s steep hills faster than most of his colleagues with Sterling Global Operations, a private company contracted by the Kurdistan Regional Government to clear mines mostly sewn by Saddam Hussein’s army prior to the 1991 Gulf War.
“When I teach people now about safety, I show them my leg, I am a living example — don’t do a mistake, follow the rules. That’s what I explain to everyone, and they listen,” said Mr Hassan, 43.
And people need to listen. Iraq remains one of the most mine-affected countries in the world. According to the United Nations — which on Friday marks UN Mine Awareness Day — more than 1,730 square kilometres of land is contaminated, affecting an estimated 1.6 million people across more than 4,000 communities.
Mr Hassan can remember vividly the day he lost his leg.
“It was Friday, August 24, 1991 at 8.30 in the morning and I can still remember the smell of the smoke,” he said, with a slight shudder.
“At first I didn’t feel the pain and I remember looking at my hands and I saw nothing, and then I looked at the others and I asked them ‘where is the explosion?’
“They just stared back at me and then I looked down and I realised what had happened. At that moment I just wanted to die. I thought my life was lost, no more football or running or swimming, it was all gone.”
He said that after the initial shock of the accident — and several months of sustaining himself by selling cigarettes in a local bazaar — he was hired by British NGO Mines Advisory Group (MAG), for whom he worked until 2011.
“I decided in my mind that I didn’t want any more people to lose their lives or their limbs like I did, and I have experience with these things so I thought I will dedicate my life to save other people from mines,” the father-of-four said, explaining a career that many in his circumstances would not have chosen.
Mr Hassan is currently overseeing clearance at several sites in the Zakho hills, close to Iraq’s border with Turkey.
At one spot, a former military position high up above a village, his team knelt on the upwards slope of the cold, damp earth.
They gently scooped up soil with a shovel, shaking it carefully though a sieve.
In a black plastic bucket there was a small pile of AK-47 bullet casings and a few metres to the side, yellow-tipped wooden stakes marked where there was once a line of Italian-made Valmera 69s landmines.
“This was a military position, you can still see the barbed wire, and you see the mines were laid in rows here to stop people coming up the hill,” said Mr Hassan.
“While you can clear some areas electronically with metal detectors, this one we have to do by hand because of the high levels of contamination, both from UXOs [unexploded ordinances] but also scrap metal left over from the military having been here.”
Leaning forward over a thin blue rope marking the edges of the safe area, he pointed to a faded piece of grey plastic, heavily camouflaged in the deep grass.
“Look, this is another V69 that we haven’t removed yet. The detonator is gone but there are still ball bearings inside, and here you can see a wire that links to a booby trap.”
“Don’t come any closer,” he said quickly. “And don’t cross that line, if you do, I’ll see you in paradise.”
In Kurdistan, while built-up areas have long been mine-free, UXOs still litter the countryside, particularly in the hills, close to borders restricting agricultural and infrastructure development and also posing major safety risks to people and livestock.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines-affiliated Landmine Monitor, citing the most-recent statistics from Iraqi government agencies, reported in August 2013 that to date more than 29,000 people have been victims of landmine accidents in Iraq since the late 1980s.
Nearly 15,000 of those casualties — including 6,000 deaths — were in Kurdistan.
In 2012, the latest year for which data is available, there were 84 mine accidents across Iraq with 42 deaths, though many more incidents are likely to have gone unreported.
“As long as there are mines are in the ground, there are risks and accidents will continue to happen,” said Salaam Mohammed, a technical field manager with MAG, which carries out mine clearance and community education in Kurdistan.
“Currently we have 15 mine fields under clearance and unexploded ordinances, and we also we have eight teams doing community education work.”
He added: “Most minefields were laid to protect military positions, which were at the entrances to villages so land where people live and where they need to graze their animals is contaminated.”
Sterling Global Operations is one of nearly a dozen commerical mine clearing companies operating in Kurdistan. It has projects all over the world, including Afghanistan where it was contracted by the UAE government.
They have 15 projects ongoing, most for energy companies, five on behalf of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
“In Kurdistan the demining workload has moved from humanitarian organisations to commercial companies like ours,” said Andy Gleeson, the operations principal for Sterling Global, and a former British serviceman.
“Our main clients are oil and gas companies, who are preparing land for exploration, as well as the government, who are developing infrastructure and clearing land for housing projects.”
Mr Gleeson said while mine accidents were decreasing as land was cleared, the recent surge in construction and oil exploration in Kurdistan meant there were new risks for mines to be uncovered.
Iraq signed the Ottawa Treaty in 2008, pledging to be “impact free” by 2018, but it is understood the government is likely to seek a 10-year extension giving it until 2028 to clear its territory.
At the mine site near Zakho, in a makeshift hut perched halfway up the hill, at the bottom of the mined sloped up the old military post, a map is marked with red crosses where devices have been found and there are photographs pinned to a board.
Mr Hassan said that he and his team kept detailed records of the mines they recovered, and that one could usually tell by the make and origin who laid the mine and when.
But he said he was not too bothered who put them there, it was more important to get them out.
“I hate these things,” he said. “It makes me ashamed that people used them.”