"There are districts and fields in east Basra which have been abandoned by people and transformed from fertile agricultural dreamlands… into arid landmine deserts," said Iyad al-Kanaan, head of Iraq’s Demining Organization.
In Basra and other southern areas bordering Iran, three devastating wars have been fought in recent decades, leaving behind a multitude of unexploded mines that are often triggered by innocent passers-by with fatal consequences.
The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, the first Gulf war of 1991, and the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 all left a terrible mark of abandoned and unexploded armaments upon the territory. Hundreds of tons of military waste, munitions, containers dropped by the coalition air force and an untold number of landmines and artillery plague the landscape.
UN estimates in 2003 suggested that more than ten million landmines and unexploded artillery shells littered the western desert regions and east of Basra city along the Shatt al-Arab waterway towards Iran. Landmine clearance organizations working in the south, say that this figure has more than tripled since the recent war.
"Eighty percent of landmines still exist in Basra. Some international organizations have provided help but they were unable to remove more than 400,000 landmines,” said al-Kanaan.
The result has been widespread migration away from these dangerous areas. As one example, the area of al-Fao has seen up to 80,000 people flee their villages since the Iran-Iraq war. Although a semblance of peace has descended upon the country these villages today remain abandoned.
Officials from Basra’s Civil Defense Directorate say that efforts are being made to remove the mines but that they lack the necessary equipment. According to one source, speaking on condition of anonymity, mine removal teams are using primitive and ineffective equipment that poses severe risks to users.
To date little foreign assistance has been secured.
"After the 2003 war 37 international de-mining organizations came to Basra to help remove the waste, but the attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and the deteriorating security situation in Basra forced these organizations to withdraw," said the Civil Defense source.
According to al-Kanaan from the Demining Organization, “the absence of government and international support and the inability to utilize the capabilities of the Iraqi army means that no one will be able to clean up Basra’s landmines for years to come."
In the meantime, Basra’s health department is running seminars and workshops across the province in a bid to spread awareness of the issue and minimize the number of causalities.
One of the few groups that have actively worked to collect these mines and other unexploded artillery have been militant groups seeking arms. Basra police say that outlawed groups, militias and terrorists have taken advantage of these unguarded explosives using them for criminal acts over recent years. One warehouse discovered along the Shatt al-Arab waterway contained 6000 rockets and landmines.
Looking to the future there are fears that the continued presence of landmines may, in addition to causing more injuries and fatalities, hamper Basra’s economic development.
“While the government is inviting international companies and individuals to invest in the South, and in Basra in particular, landmines remain widespread in the proposed investment area," said a former provincial council member, speaking anonymously. How he wondered, would the government overcome the legitimate fears of investors? Blaming the lack of a comprehensive clean-up operation on the “conflict and polarization” of recent years, the former official worried that the province will now pay an economic price for the lack of activity.