A few days ago Ali al-Fahdawi, a former resident in the Malaab neighbourhood in the city of Ramadi, decided to return home. He and his family had been displaced thanks to the extremist group known as the Islamic State, which had been in control of the city for almost two years. But at the beginning of this year the Iraqi army and volunteer militias announced they had pushed the extremists out of the city. They’ve been successful but it’s come at a high cost to the city and residents, as al-Fahdawi relates.
“When we entered the house we tried to avoid anything connected with wires,” he explains – the Islamic State, or IS, group had become well known for leaving explosives hidden everywhere and in particularly cunning places. “We tried to avoid everything like that despite all of the reassurances we were given that the area had been checked.”
A few hours after coming back home and finding everything apparently safe, al-Fahdawi went to a nearby market to get drinking water. While there, he heard an explosion nearby and when he rushed home, he found that a hidden bomb had killed his brother and his niece.
“He was on way home with his daughter’s bicycle,” al-Fahdawi explains. “How was he to know that this bicycle was to become a machine of death? The frame was filled with explosive material and the seat became the trip wire for the bomb. This is what killed them both.”
Al-Fahdawi is sad but also angry. He doesn’t think the authorities have checked the houses properly - and, he says, this is mainly because they don’t have the resources to do so.
The IS group attach bombs to things that women or children pick up. Every time, we find explosives attached to things like children’s toys, family pictures and cooking pots.
“I saw with my own eyes how they just go into a house, look around and then leave again. Every day we hear stories about people being killed or injured, all over the city,” he tells NIQASH.
Sitting with her grandchildren in the open, outer courtyard of her former home – nothing is left of it except the living room and some structural walls, which seem ready to collapse – local woman, Um Ayman, told how she returned to Ramadi.
“Her father, Abdullah, my youngest son, convinced me to return,” she says, pointing at a young girl next to her. “He thought we should come back to make sure the house was OK and he decided to come before us. He telephoned and told us about the damage to the house and the city’s destruction.”
The rest of the family decided to return the next day too, so that they could help Abdullah start repairs – the house wasn’t too damaged. “We didn’t expect to come back here and go to a funeral though,” Um Ayman, who didn’t want to give her full name, recounts. “Abdullah was trying to put women’s clothes that were lying around, away in a closet. This was so people wouldn’t see them when they arrived. But one of the dresses was connected to a wire and the wire went to an explosive device under a bed. There was a huge explosion and my son was killed,” Um Ayman says, her eyes filling with tears.
“Everything in this city is a threat now,” she continued. “We can barely move in our own houses, let alone on the streets. Anything could be a bomb that kills us or the people we love. So we’re avoiding doing too much moving around, both inside and outside our houses.”
It is not just returning civilians, who’ve been encouraged by messages that the city is safe again, who are being killed and injured by explosives hidden by the IS group.
“Our lack of experience and lack of equipment hasn’t stopped us from doing our duty,” says Mustafa al-Alwani, a member of the bomb squad working in Ramadi – there are ongoing local and international efforts to try and remove the hidden bombs and mines that are causing so many problems in Ramadi and special cells have been formed, under the auspices of the local council, supervised by international experts. “But every week we lose our friends, who die because of a lot of very strange and unusual sorts of bombs. We just don’t know how to deal with them. We have our mission,” al-Alwani agrees. “But nobody is helping us and there are no volunteers from the army or military to help us either.”
“People here are certainly cooperating with us though,” he continues. “If they see something strange, they come and tell us. That’s been very helpful – not only does it save their lives, but we learn more about the new ways that the IS group has hidden bombs. They use a lot of different and complex methods – they put them in certain places and they always attach bombs to things that will be tempting for women or children to pick up. Every time we arrive at a house, we find explosives in, or attached to, things like children’s toys, family pictures and cooking pots.”
The provincial council cannot tell how many hidden bombs or mines there are still left in Ramadi, says Taha Abdul Ghani, a member of Anbar’s council. This is because of the extent of the damage done to the city, he explains – the council estimates that about 60 percent of the city has been razed. And it’s also due to the unusual and innovative ways in which the IS group has hidden explosives. There are also a number of unexploded munitions lying around, that didn’t detonate, during the two years of fighting.
I won’t go back until it’s safe. I would rather my family be away from home than dead.
“The local government has contracted a US firm that specializes in removing explosives and munitions, and they have also contracted an Iraqi company to survey the city,” Abdul Ghani continued. “The plan is to ensure that the city is empty of explosives within 90 days. I believe that this could be achieved if the work continues without interruptions or delays.”
The US government is also helping in this mission, having announced “$5 million in new US assistance to help safely clear explosive hazards in Ramadi, an essential first step to supporting Iraqi authorities as they repair key infrastructure and help displaced Iraqi families return home”.
Meanwhile the ordinary citizens of Ramadi must continue to worry. Some of them say they won’t be back for a long time, despite the messages they are hearing that it is safe to return home.
“Most of our city’s neighbourhoods have been almost completely destroyed – that includes where we used to live,” says Ahmad Abu-Karim, who used to live in the Bakr neighbourhood in the east of the city. “It’s hard to tell what was a street or a house or a park. All the destruction is mixed together.”
So Abu-Karim won’t be back anytime soon. “Even if I have to stay away for two years, I won’t go back until I am sure that it’s safe. I would rather my family be away from home than dead.”