Land mines, the silent killers in Syria war
Northern Syria - While rockets and missiles explode on impact causing immediate casualties, land mines and unexploded ordnance are killers that will haunt populations for decades to come. In Syria today, more than 25,000 people have been killed or wounded by mines planted by all parties in the five-year bloody conflict, making Syria one of the world’s most mine-polluted countries.
Land mines are used in besieging cities, preventing and slowing down enemy advances and protecting strategic sites. In the southern provinces of Quneitra and Deraa, land mines were planted extensively around the many military bases as part of the army’s defence strategy. When the rebel fighters seized the strategic sites, many were killed or injured by the vicious “killers”.
Aware of the long-term dangers of mine pollution, many civil society groups have created demining centres, such as the one in Deraa, which has successfully removed mines in most districts it could reach.
“Most areas from which the Syrian Army had retreated are littered with mines and have not been cleared yet, though thousands of mines have already been found and deactivated by opposition fighters who also recuperated the explosive charges inside them,” said Ghazi Swedan, the de-mining centre director.
Nonetheless, thousands continue to fall victim to unexploded ordnance. “Up to the beginning of 2016, we have documented the cases of 25,000 victims of land mines and cluster bombs. But accidents are on the rise every day, as more than 80% of Syrian territory is polluted with mines and most cities, towns and villages are littered with unexploded ordnances,” Swedan said.
“Since 2012, we have cleared about 12,500 mines and trained over 400 field workers in most Syrian districts.”
Besieged cities, such as Madaya, north-west of Damascus, have been encircled by land mines to prevent residents from fleeing or bringing in supplies. Madaya residents say regime forces and allies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah planted land mines last winter when bad weather disrupted proper surveillance.
“Those who could escape Hezbollah’s snipers would surely be trapped in the minefields. Many people have lost their lives that way. They were trying to escape death from famine but they ended up losing their lives from mines,” one resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Numerous minefields were also planted in battlegrounds around Damascus. A rebel fighter from Deraa, near Damascus, explained: “We have identified many mine zones, especially in wooded areas which are difficult to monitor. They were purposely mined so that we would not escape through the fields.”
The fighter, who asked for anonymity, said the rebels deactivated some mines and replanted them in other zones. “But many of these fighters died in battle and we no longer know the mines’ location… Heavy bombardment changed the area’s landscape beyond recognition… Deraa’s fields and orchards were turned into mine fields rather than fruit-tree fields.”
The northern Idlib and Aleppo districts rank first in terms of civilian casualties caused by unexploded ordnance. “Cluster bombs dropped by Russian planes have made it very difficult for rescuers to do their job since they too fall victim to unexploded bombs as they try to reach mine victims,” said Abu Jaafar Mohamad, head of the Independent Office of Legal Medicine in Aleppo.
Mines have also been planted by the Islamic State (ISIS) in areas under its control in Aleppo province. “They booby-trapped roads hoping to prevent their opponents from advancing,” said Abu Lateef, from the town of Minbaj in rural Aleppo. “Fifteen fighters from the Free Syrian Army were hit by mines in Kubra, east of Aleppo, from which ISIS had retreated leaving it littered with explosives.”
To the east, ISIS surrounded government-controlled areas in the city of Deir ez-Zor with thousands of landmines. “After a year of living under siege, some inhabitants tried to flee driven by famine and disease. They were either killed by ISIS sharpshooters or exploding mines. Some torn corpses are still lying in the minefields,” said Ali al- Abd who lives in Deir ez-Zor’s besieged al-Jura neighbourhood.
“In case ISIS leaves the city, who could remove the thousands of mines? Death lies in wait for the inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor,” he said.
Up to 10,000 land mines are believed to be still buried in Kobane, north of Syria, which Kurdish fighters recaptured from ISIS last year. According to Idris Naasan, a local Kurdish official, about 300 people have been killed and 800 others injured in mine explosions since ISIS was expelled from the town.
Naasan said foreign de-mining organisations such as DCA, MAG, and Handicap International were barred by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan from bringing in detectors and demining equipment, classified as military equipment. “Their help was limited to counselling and raising awareness about the dangers of mines.”