In the governorate of Kirkuk, several weapons clearance experts dressed in protective blue clothing inspect a field, under the curious gaze of the local population. “This area was heavily contaminated by bombing in 2003,” explains Nizar Abdul Karim, technical manager of Handicap International’s weapons clearance operations in Iraq. “In fact, we are not just dealing with explosive remnants of war left behind by fighting since 2014. There’s some legacy contamination dating from earlier conflicts. There are still a lot of cluster bombs around here, for example.
Slightly further away, close to a village, another of the organisation’s teams is hard at work. “Before 2014, more than 70 families lived in this village, but they had to flee. This area has seen heavy fighting and we are just a few kilometres from the front lines,” explains Nizar. “Before people return to the area, our teams marks dangerous zones to warn them of the risks because they are heavily contaminated with explosive remnants of war. We always do this before starting clearance.”
A villager wanders up to the team: “You’re doing very important work,” he tells them. “We were wondering if we should move back, but we didn’t realise the risks involved. I’m glad you’ve put up these signs around the village so that people know that they can’t farm this field or even approach it before you come to clear it from explosive remnants of war.”
“A shell in our garden”
Wherever they operate, Handicap International’s teams try to work as closely as possible to the local people, to protect them from the dangers to which they may be exposed. One woman says: “I returned to the village five or six months ago, with my family. When we arrived outside our house, we found a shell in the garden. Handicap International’s teams came and destroyed it. Since then, I feel confident enough to let my children play outside again.”
Here, as in other areas of the country, dozens of the organisation’s professionals are currently working on weapons clearance operations. They have already destroyed more than 2,000 explosive remnants of war in just two months. But the road ahead is long: after several decades of conflict, Iraq is one of the most contaminated countries in the world.