The deadly illusion of border tranquility

ATTENTION to detail can be lifesaving.

It’s a skill. None more so than for anyone who enters a minefield. And so it was with some trepidation (and possibly stupidity and against my editor’s wishes) that this intermittently un-coordinated journalist reluctantly decided to enter a live landmine field in rural Iraq.

The former Saddam Hussein military base of Sheramar in the eastern Iraqi province of Sulaymaniyah lies just a few kilometres from the Iranian border. During the 1980s, fierce fighting continued for eight years between the countries (the war was the longest conventional one in the 20th century) along their borders, which both ploughed full of landmines.

The lush green site at Sheramar is no longer filled with tanks, guns and war weaponry but instead is just empty fields surrounding a small hill where the Iraqi unit’s observation post once stood. The tranquility belies what lies a few inches beneath its soil.

Only a few months back, two farmers were injured working on the land when anti-personnel mines blew off their legs.

Like many other yet-uncleared fields in Iraq, impoverished farmers keen to plant wheat and fruit often refuse to wait until the lands are cleared of mines.

However, there was no rushing me into the cordoned off fields.

A briefing about the work of deminers at the site also heightened my anxiety.

Since July 2010, trained deminers have 39 unexploded anti-personnel landmines, eight cluster bombs, nine mortars and six rocket propelled grenades. 6,616 metres have been cleared by Mines Advisory Group (MAG) teams, nearly half of the target.

Kitted out with armour plated clothing and a helmet, I cautiously inched my way onto the green site, contemplating every step very carefully.

The visor on my helmet fogged up as my breath and heart beat quickened.

Red stick markers and signs with skulls and crossbones mark the space between life and death here.

Deminers use metal detectors while demining sniffing dogs have also helped clear the lands.

The job is certainly not for the fainthearted.

Many MAG deminers are Iraqi nationals and have worked clearing lands of mines for years, in some cases their entire adult lives.

He may not be the crazed bomb defuser characterised in the Hollywood film The Hurt Locker, but Zana Amin, 32, can certainly testify to having cleared an astonishing number of unexploded bombs.

The deminer team leader has defused over 2,000 mines since he qualified for the dangerous job 15 years ago.

Since having spent half his life disarming lethal devices nearly on a daily basis, Amin has also seen colleagues injured during work, including one who lost both legs.

“Your attention never slips. You just stay focused and clear your mind. Most of the time yeah, I say ‘this is crazy’,” says the married father of two.

Like most of the deminers as well as victims I met while visiting Iraq’s contaminated fields, Amin has a certain acceptance, a belief that his destiny is not his to control. It may be his religion. It may the years of conflict that have left their scars on Iraq’s people. But in the face of continued violence and danger in Iraq, there is a simple bravery and courage too that abounds among its citizens.

Amin adds: “Death is not by my hand but by God’s. All jobs have safety and danger issues. At the end of every week I take my family for a picnic or to visit relatives or to see my family.

* This series was carried out with the help of the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund, supported by Irish Aid

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