GENEVA — The United Nations has recorded 37,000 incidents of heavy weapons use in the three-year Syrian civil war, a staggering frequency that the top U.N. official for disarming mines and discarded munitions warns will plague civilians and humanitarian aid groups for years after the fighting there ends.
“Remember,” Agnes Marcaillou, the head of the United Nations Mine Action Service, said in an interview with McClatchy, “millions of refugees and displaced people must walk back on contaminated roads, and humanitarian helicopters will have to be used to deliver food aid if the roads are not cleared.”
The U.N. mine agency, relying on news accounts for its information, has been plotting on a map all reported incidents where Syrian government and rebel forces have fought. The result is a “clash database,” which will be used to search for unexploded ordnance if a peace arrangement is ever negotiated.
“We have right now recorded 37,000 such clashes,” she said.
“We must put mine action on the Syrian solution agenda,” Marcaillou said, adding that her agency already has drawn up plans for working in Syria and that those plans had been given to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. peace envoy to Syria and the moderator earlier this year of failed talks between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its opponents.
How to deal with what’s left behind on the battlefield when a conflict ends has been a problem of all wars. The U.N. mine agency estimates that about 10 times every day someone in the world is killed or maimed by a landmine or other unexploded ordnance. Friday was the U.N.’s day for mine awareness.
The mine agency is now active in 30 countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria. While its name emphasizes mines, it focuses on all explosive remnants of war _ unexploded artillery shells, cluster bombs and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
The whole point of our work “is to prevent death and injury,” Marcaillou said.
The agency’s activities include clearing landmines, destroying stockpiles of ordnance, assisting victims and educating people on how to avoid being maimed by a weapon of war they might discover lying by the side of the road or half buried in a field or in their backyards. That’s especially true for people living in contaminated areas and refugees returning home, often after years away.
Training local governments in the program is also part of the effort _ “to ensure that countries can do it after we leave,” she said.
The work of the U.N. Mine Action Service is crucial in supporting peacekeeping operations and humanitarian relief efforts in global conflict zones such as Mali, South Sudan and the Congo.
“We go back and forth on the roads, and we clear the roads, and we assess the danger of the roads,” Marcaillou said. In Mali, where French forces last year helped put down an al Qaida-inspired rebellion, “we are facing mines, unexploded ordnances from the conflict and also from the interventions of foreign troops, and increasingly IEDs, roadside bombs of suicide bombers, which seems to be increasingly used,” she said.
“We have an essential role in allowing the deployment of the peacekeeping troops,” she added.
In South Sudan, the mine agency has deployed eight teams to conduct clearance operations and surveys to ensure that roads are clear for peacekeepers, humanitarian aid groups and local people needing to haul goods to market.
The clearance of thousands of miles of roads in South Sudan after independence in 2011 also helped economic activity, though recent fighting between rebels and the government is pushing the country toward famine.
Marcaillou, a French national and a lawyer, has worked for the U.N. on arms control and disarmament issues for more than 25 years. She was once chief of staff of the executive secretary of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the group based in The Hague that is currently supervising the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Marcaillou said that in Afghanistan, the ordnance disarming effort employs 15,000 Afghans, though she said the agency and its partners recently laid off 3,000 for lack of funds. “This is a really sad story. The monthly salary of one NATO soldier is roughly equal to 100 Afghan deminers,” she said.
In Afghanistan, about 75 percent of people injured are victims of IEDs, while less than 5 percent are injured each year from traditional landmines. More than 662,000 landmines have been destroyed in Afghanistan, and the agency hopes it will be mine free by 2023.
Asked to comment on how her agency sees the upcoming challenge in Syria, Marcaillou did not hesitate. “Way bigger in our estimates than Afghanistan,” she said.
Zarcostas is a McClatchy special correspondent.