It took Hoshyar Ali a while to realise that his right leg was gone, torn off by the force of the explosion. But the de-mining expert, who lost his limb in a 1989 explosion in the Bamo area, in the Iraqi Kurdish province of Sulaymaniyah, says his accident made him even more determined to continue his work.
Today, the 53-year-old retired major general, formerly a soldier with the military in the semi-autonomous northern region, reckons he has defused around one million mines. It is hard to confirm these numbers but given the amount of time he has been doing this work, and the number of mines defused in the region annually – around 16,000 mines were removed over the past year and 18 million cubic meters of land were made safe – he may well be right.
The Islamic State group have more powerful landmines than Saddam Hussein used to have.
Ali has been getting rid of mines for 27 years now. In the 1980s he worked on the borders of Iran and Iraq, defusing mines left over from the war between the two countries. In 1994, Ali lost his left leg too, in another mine explosion in the Banjuin area in Iraqi Kurdistan and he has had other, less serious wounds too. Yet he has never stopped working.
“He may well have cleared that number of mines,” says Ahmed Fattah, spokesperson for the Sulaymaniyah province’s Department of Mine Affairs. “He has spent more than 20 years de-mining and he has worked almost every day.”
Ali worked in areas like Banjuin, Halabja, Karmayan and Sayed Sadiq, Fattah notes. “And those are among the worst areas in Kurdistan regarding mines.”
Ali is well known for his work and in fact, some locals have nicknamed him “Hoshyar Mines” or “the mine man”. He has even had streets named after him in some areas.
This is probably also due to the fact that Ali himself is happy to publicise his work. He has ben collecting the mines he defused and has turned his own home into a kind of museum for what is left of the deadly weapons. He has 18 tons of salvaged mine materials there, in Hawraman in the Halabja area, some of which are rare; not even the Department of Mine Affairs has them, Ali boasts.
A Japanese flag hangs over his home because it was the Japanese government that paid for him to travel to that country and fitted him with two artificial legs. And on his car there are pictures of mines, as well as a slogan: “I am ready to exterminate you, wherever you are”.
Although he is officially retired, Ali has left his phone number and address with local security forces so that they can call upon his expertise at any time. Most recently Ali has been dealing with mines and improvised explosive devices left behind by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. He doesn’t work with any organisation officially any more but still does the frontline job.
“Since the security crisis began, I’ve been defusing mines on the battlefield,” Ali explains. “I don’t consider myself retired. The mines that the Islamic State group plant are very different to the kinds of mines that [former Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein used to leave. Their devices are much more powerful.”
Ali also takes part in exhibitions and conferences and over the past 12 months, he has visited around 167 schools in the Halabja province to try and educate pupils about the dangers that landmines present. He plans to do the same in the province of Sulaymaniyah during the coming year.
“Wherever there are mines, I will go,” Ali insists. “I’m proud to make so many places safe and save lives. So I am going to keep doing this job until the last day of my life. I want future generations to remember the mine man.”