The sound was deafening and awful. Clods of earth and stones flew into the air and there was smoke. The sound was followed by the cries of people nearby and then, even worse, the calls for help and screams of the two young boys who had been closest to the land mine. The third boy, who had also been nearby, was silent.
“I had never heard anything like that in my life before,” says Abdul-Amir al-Jizani, the father of the three boys who were closest to the land mine. “It was so frightening. And I didn't expect to see body parts scattered around – one of my sons – and the other two boys screaming and weeping.”
The al-Jizani family are shepherds and they move their cattle around in search of fertile ground in Iraq's southern Maysan province. The only mistake that the three young shepherds made was to lose their way on land that's been abandoned since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Most of the people in this area, Tayeb, which is about 30 kilometres east of the provincial capital, Amarah, do the same kinds of work, grazing and farming or working as shepherds. Every season about 2,000 people come from the outskirts of Amarah and spread out across about 36,000 square kilometres. Land mines are a major problem for these roaming families – over the years the mines have been moved by environmental factors, like floods. In other cases the maps or signs showing where they were have disappeared.
Local Iraqi media continuously run headlines like this: Child killed by land mines, Oil worker loses leg in mine explosion. And Maysan is one of the most heavily mined provinces in Iraq, along with Basra, Nasiriya, and Muthanna.
“We don't have detailed maps that show where land mines were planted on the border strip between Iraq and Iran,” says Samir Abboud, the head of Maysan's Department of the Environment. “We actually only have a rough estimate – but we think there are about 3 million mines that have not yet been exploded or found, and these are causing casualties among local farmers.”
Abboud says they've tried to fence off areas they believe are mined as well as erect warning signs. But it's a vast area and they haven't been all that successful, he notes.
Although statistics are hard to come by, the Iraqi government estimates that there are around 5,000 victims of land mines in Iraq, with about 800 coming from the parts of Maysan bordering Iran. Most of these were farmers or shepherds.
The Head of the Health and Environment Commission in Maysan, Maytham Lafta al-Fartousi, believes there are about 5 million land mines in the province, along with millions of unexploded munitions. “These remnants of war are in the border areas between Iraq and Iran,” he explains. “Despite such big numbers, the central government hasn't come up with any kind of plan to remove them or reprocess them.”
Between 2005 and 2006 a South African company was contracted to clear mines from Maysan. But the company eventually withdrew because of violent conflicts in the area that also targeted their premises. There are oil fields in the area that are being developed and oil workers are also at risk from land mines – the Maysan Oil Company is trying to clear the area of mines and had been working with the Iraqi military to do this. However this attempt is now on hold thanks to the military being needed in the fight against the extremist Islamic State group.
Removing land mines is a very expensive process, says Khaled Wahem, the spokesperson for the Maysan Oil Company. The cost of clearing a square meter of land is US$4 and the cost of surveying the land afterwards, to ensure that all mines have been removed, is US$1,900 per team of surveyors.
“Our volunteers are trying to spread awareness among the people here about the dangers of land mines – especially during spring when farmers and shepherds become more active on the land,” says the director of Iraq's Red Crescent, Haider al-Jawadi. Al-Jawadi also says that the government doesn't really help the victims of mines at all.
Abdul-Ridha Mahood runs a society for the disabled in Maysan and he criticises the Iraqi government for not helping them. “No Iraqi government has ever been serious about passing laws that guarantee disabled people rights, nor have they ever helped with health care,” Mahood says. “They offer them nothing. It's a nightmare.”
In fact, Mahood says that disabled people in Maysan have become so dispirited about the situation – they feel nobody will ever help them – that membership in the society he heads has dropped significantly.