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iraq’s ‘drifting’ land mines expel wasit’s farmers from their land

Mohammed al-Zaidi
After years of war, unexploded landmines are a big problem in Iraq. Now mines that are moving due to flooding and rain are causing farmers to simply abandon their land, rather than risk death or injury.
11.01.2012  |  Wasit

A land mine made Iraqi farmer al-Badri abandon his land, his home and his living. When the mine exploded, in central Wasit, an eastern province of Iraq, it also injured his daughter, who is now handicapped and unable to help work on the farm. And the thing that upsets al-Badri is that the mine may not even have been planted on his property originally.

"Mines are spread throughout the area and some of them drift into our villages and onto our farmland because of floods and heavy rain in the border areas," explained al-Badri, who now lives in poverty and with psychological hardship. "The government hasn\'t done enough to combat these mines, which endanger peoples\' lives," he complained.

Wasit is in south eastern Iraq and it borders on Iran. The border area was heavily mined in the past due to various ongoing, Iraqi conflicts with the neighbouring nation. In winter, the problem with mines worsens with mines drifting from border areas further into Iraq. And now fear of the mines is causing many to abandon their farms in the border areas.

“Mines and explosives have caused the loss of three districts with a total area of 30,000 acres,” Ali Faleh, mayor of the Zurbatiyah district, which borders Iran, told NIQASH. “The land was abandoned by farmers because of all the different types of mines planted in these areas. And we’ve contacted the local government and the Ministry of the Environment. But we’ve yet to have any response. And that’s despite the injuries to farmers, shepherds and other residents. There’s just not enough money allocated to cover the hospitalization expenses of mine victims,” he noted.

During the war between Iran and Iraq, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime mined border areas to prevent Iran’s ground troops from crossing into Iraqi territory. Then whenever they managed to occupy parts of Iraq, the Iranians also laid their own mines. All of which worsened the mine problem in border areas like Wasit, Iraqi Kurdistan and Basra.

Iraqi government statistics suggest that tens of thousands of mines have already been removed from the countryside. One organization recently announced that it had dealt with over 36,000 mines but that this was still not enough.

There are no reliable figures for the number of land mines and unexploded ordinances scattered around Iraq but the Iraq Landmine Impact Survey of 2004-2006 suggested that just over 1,700 square kilometres of land were contaminated, “impacting the livelihoods and safety of more than 1.6 million Iraqis”.

And a 2008 report by the Iraqi government to the United Nations suggests there are at least 20 million anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines mainly in border areas and around southern oil fields. However because of the fact that the survey was only conducted in 13 out of 18 Iraqi states, the methodology used by the researchers and also the fact that the figure of 20 million mines is based only on what the Iraqi army placed, it seems likely that there are actually far more unexploded mines in Iraq than this.

The various surveys also indicate that mines and explosives laid along Iraq’s borders with Iran and more recently, with Saudi Arabia, are responsible for around half of all mine victims.

"I was grazing the livestock on farmland close to my house when a mine exploded under my feet and amputated them,” Umm Mohammed, 50, says. “Now I have to live with my disability. Life has become unbearable. There are no work opportunities for disabled people and it’s hard for me to support my family,” says the woman who tried, to no avail, to get artificial limbs.

Qasim Mal Allah was on his way to visit relatives when a landmine exploded leaving him with only one leg. With tears in his eyes, Mal Allah told NIQASH how his family had been forced to sell their farm in order to pay for his hospital expenses. He has also been unable to get artificial limbs and is mostly bed ridden while his family lives in poverty.

Meanwhile Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment has tried to convince international organizations to come to Iraq and help in the de-mining process. However according to a source inside the relevant department, there are significant impediments to that aid.

The source explained that in order to avoid terrorists or extremists getting their hands on unexploded mines, there were very strict security rules around who could engage in de-mining. These time consuming processes apparently deterred some of those who might be able to help.

And mayor Faleh confirmed that the security measures were necessary. “It is true that some people make illicit use of the unexploded mines. A number of the injured locals were actually hurt while trying to collect the mines so they could sell them on to terrorist groups,” he noted.

The head of Wasit’s Environmental Committee, Hamdiya Hassan, told NIQASH that there were currently two specialist companies working on the de-mining of the border area.

But they were actually working for the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, which recently began preliminary drilling for oil in Wasit’s Badra oil field. “So the de-mining companies only work where there are oil drilling operations,” Hassan explained, adding that, “the huge number of mines requires a more focused approach. And there is need for more specialists here. The threat is beyond the capacities of the local government.”