Iraqi Kurdistan: The Ongoing Threat of Landmines
According to the Mines Advisory Group, Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the most densely filled mine zones in the world - Hikmet Marouf shares its experience of working as a de-miner in this area.
Clearing landmines is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. But de-miners say it is much more a vocation than a job.
Eleven years ago, Hikmet Marouf, who is now 34, lost both his legs while clearing landmines in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. But he does not regret working as a de-miner. “Each time I destroyed or detonated a landmine, I felt I saved a person’s life."
Marouf started working for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), an international non-profit organisation in 1993, clearing landmines, unexploded ordnance and other remnants of conflict, which are active in large parts of Kurdistan Region.
Marouf says he does not know exactly how many landmines and ordnances he detonated during all the years he worked as a de-miner. "It’s like asking how many sunflowers you’ve eaten in your life”, he says.
He recalls working as part of a team in a village in Darbandikhan, where they exploded 100 tons of mortar in three months. The rockets were left by Saddam Hussein’s army.
According to MAG, Kurdistan region is one of the most densely filled mine zones in the world. Currently, there is at least one landmine for every person in the region.
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 intended to force Kurdish villagers, who often sheltered the rebels, to move to the cities.
Over the past 20 years, thousands of people have been killed and maimed by undiscovered devices. Moreover, landmines have had a devastating impact on the region’s economy, particularly agriculture and infrastructure.
To date, Kurdistan de-miners like Marouf have de-activated almost 2 million mines, clearing several million square meters of land. In addition, they have saved the lives of thousands people and animals.
Marouf says removing a mine or exploding ordnance needs a lot of courage and caution. The slogan they learnt was: "You cannot make a mistake with mines." Any mistake will be fatal.
Marouf and his colleagues lost many friends from mine explosions, and a number of Marouf’s friends have been left disabled like him.
The weakest mine available in Kurdistan is called M14. It is made in the United States, contains 29 grams of TNT and when it explodes under a person, can destroy limbs.
The most powerful anti-personnel mine in the region is the Valmara, which is made in Italy. It was a Valmara mine that blew off both Marouf’s legs on 20 July 2000, at eight o’clock in the morning in a field in Ahmed Klwan village in Penjwin district.
The minefield covered an area of 54,000 square metres, and had been a priority for MAG, since it was close to the community and three villagers of Ahmed Klwan had been injured there. Marouf and his team had spent three months working there.
"The mine changed all my dreams", says Marouf who graduated from the Sports Institute and was a football player. He underwent 26 surgeries, 20 of them in Kurdistan and 6 in Germany.
Today, Marouf is busy campaigning to improve the lives of landmine victims and disabled people in Iraq. He is setting up an organisation with other victims to lobby the Iraqi government to abide by international agreements on mines and disability rights.
In 2006, the Iraqi government signed the Ottawa agreement to ban and clear Iraq of landmines.
As disabled people in Iraq find it very hard to get jobs, one of his demands is that the government should impose a 5% quota of disabled employees in private companies, that come to work in Kurdistan.
Another major demand is that the government and private sector should take disability into account when designing buildings in cities and towns.
"I can’t go to many public places, like cinemas, theatres, clinics, restaurants, because their building designs aren’t suitable for disabled people," he says.
"I lived in Germany for three years and went everywhere without any problem or help. I felt normal, because in Germany, cities are built for all kinds of people. But here in Kurdistan, cities are built only for strong and physically healthy people."
So far, Marouf has been able to convince about fifty places in Suleimaniya city to make access for people in wheelchairs. These include restaurants, hotels, government establishments, as well as the school he works in.
As well as giving computer lessons in the school, Marouf also runs a website [kemendaman.com] for disabled people, giving them up-to-date information about health treatments and new technology to make their lives easier.