In the district of Choman, which runs along the Iraqi border with Iran, breath-taking valleys and mountains abound. But any visitor to this beautiful area is quickly warned by villagers, shepherds or signs of the
Choman district, like the entire Kurdish border area with Iran, is haunted by mines.
Over the past years thousands of people have been killed and injured by undiscovered devices. While there are no clear statistics on the number of people killed since 1991, the General Foundation for Landmine Affairs in the Kurdish Region said 86 people set off landmines in Erbil province in 2008, killed 11 and handicapping many more.
Hajji Faqe Aziz, a 75 year old nomad, lost a son last year to a landmine explosion.
“My son [who was a shepherd] was aware of the landmine danger, but since there was little water last year due to the lack of rain and snow he took the sheep deep into the mountains and a mine blew up under his feet and killed him at once,” he told Niqash.
During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war the former Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein mined the border area with Iran to prevent the Iranian army from crossing over, but also to form a separation barrier between them and Kurdish peshmerga rebels. The mines were also meant to force Kurdish villagers, who often sheltered the rebels, to move to the cities.
Residents of the area today refer to mines as soldiers of the former Baath regime. A local resident Faisal Ahmed told Niqash that an Iraqi army officer once told him that even after the army left the area, it would remain. The soldier was referring to the mines.
Now, every year when spring arrives and the snow melts, thousands of new unexploded ordnances are revealed across the mountains.
According to the local mayor, Abdul Wahid Gwani, the mines are the main obstacle to rebuilding the area. Villagers have been returning to the border villages since the Kurdish uprising against Saddam in 1991 but until the mines are cleared they cannot resume normal lives.
Gwani said that shepherds, farmers and smugglers between Kurdistan and Iran are all regular victims of the mines.
Kurdish smugglers, who load their horses with whiskey, vodka, and champagne, as well as cigarettes, take a very narrow and deadly route through the mountains and into Iran where people are eager to buy the prohibited goods. Their treacherous route is littered with mines.
Meredith Wotten, the Iraq project manager for Mines Advisory Group (MAG), says that the Kurdish region is one of the most densely filled mine zones in the world.
MAG says that it has deactivated more than 1.5 million mines since 1992, clearing several million square meters of land. The organization acts on phone calls to its offices by farmers, villages and construction companies who want their land to be cleared.
“We always communicate with the community and local authorities and we are working to raise they community’s awareness regarding the danger of landmines,” said Wotten.
MAG regularly visits local schools, teaching children and villagers about the risks of mines.
The rugged and difficult terrain of the Kurdish mountains makes the task of de-mining the area even more difficult. But MAG says that it has trained 700 people in the region over the past 16 years.
Indeed, such is their experience, that 19 Iraqi-Kurdish staff members were sent to Lebanon after the Israeli war in 2006 to help clear routes, houses and agriculture lands of cluster bombs.
“Our staff conducted a significant amount of work in Lebanon because of our experience in the Kurdish region,” said Rahman Khidir Rasul.