Iraq: Level of contamination from explosive remnants of war is unique
Handicap International’s demining expert, Simon Elmont, coordinates the organisation’s efforts in Iraq to protect civilians from explosive remnants of war. These actions aim at clearing areas contaminated in previous wars and zones affected more recently by conflicts, such as territories occupied by the Islamic State group.
Handicap International’s demining expert, Simon Elmont, coordinates the organisation’s efforts to protect civilians from explosive remnants of war in Iraq. | Elisa Fourt / Handicap International
When did you arrive in Iraq and what were your first impressions?
I arrived in October 2015, just after we opened our base in Kirkuk governorate. I was really struck by the situation when I got here. It’s impossible to compare this place with the countries I’ve worked in before. The level of contamination in Iraq is unique, because of the geographical location of the explosive remnants of war, and because of the quality and variety of the unexploded devices we’re finding in the country. Moreover, Handicap International doesn’t normally work so close to the frontlines. A lot of places where we work are military areas or disputed territories, which makes it more complicated and obviously has an impact on how we implement our actions.
How does all of this affect your day-to-day work?
We are working in a constantly changing environment. What holds true today may not hold true tomorrow, and in the same way, the access we have to certain areas could be blocked in an instant. You need to constantly react and adapt if you work here. You also always need to remember that conflict is part of daily life in Iraq. Respecting security procedures is even more important than usually.
How do mine risk education activities complement your work in Iraq?
One of my responsibilities is to train the staff providing mine risk education sessions. I show them the different types of explosive devices that exist, I teach them how to identify them and how to protect themselves, so they can pass on the message to the people they meet every day.
By extension, these mine risk education teams really help us with our non-technical surveys. The surveys we conduct aim at identifying areas contaminated by explosive remnants of war, recording them and marking them to warn people of the hazards. These surveys are then turned into reports for the authorities, who are the ones able to give us authorisation to clear the pre-identified area.
Sometimes, our mine risk education team talks to people who know areas where we can find or see unexploded devices. The teams then report those areas to us and we locate and mark the identified zone. This actually works both ways: when I’m in field with my two non-technical survey teams, I sometimes see children playing in contaminated areas. I then ask the mine risk education team to visit these areas and conduct awareness-raising sessions there.
Our activities are complementary and interconnected: on the one hand, they warn people of the risks of explosive weapons, and on the other hand, we try to eradicate them. In the end, we share the same goal: making sure everyone is safe.
What message would you like to send to people?
Often, people outside Iraq don’t understand how contaminated this country is, or how serious the situation is. They don’t realize the extent to which it affects the day-to-day lives of Iraqis. If we don’t clear the mines, the Iraqi crisis is going to get worse, and the number of internally displaced people will be even higher than it is today.
Our action is essential and needs to be supported: weapons clearance, because it prevents accidents and new casualties, makes it easier for people to return to their homes. And it gives NGOs the opportunity to work in areas that have been cleared of mines, in total safety.
About the project
In 2016, Handicap International launched demining activities in the governorates of Kirkuk and Diyala in Iraq. Hit by decades of war and a new wave of violence since 2014, Iraq is one of the world’s most contaminated countries in terms of explosive remnants of war (ERW), and its population is extremely vulnerable to injury or death. When the ground is contaminated by ERW, it is one of the factors that prevents civilians from returning safely to their home towns, and the stabilisation and economic recovery of these areas in Iraq. Conducting non-technical surveys and marking and documenting contaminated areas are the preliminary stages of weapons clearance action.