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Buried mines and ordnance continue to maim Iraqi civilians

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—Fifteen-year-old Zana Hussein Mahmood was shepherding cattle when he found an intriguing finger-sized metal tube. Nine-year-old Arjan Mohammed Hussein was digging in the yard when he found one.

Both boys paid dearly for their discoveries.

The tubes exploded. Mahmood lost the tips of two fingers on his right hand and shrapnel peppered his face and right shoulder. Hussein lost his right hand.

Though the Iraq-Iran war ended almost 16 years ago, millions of land mines and detonators like those that injured Zana and Arjan remain implanted along the roughly 1,000-mile border between the two countries.

Unexploded mines—along with ordnance from that war and a little from the U.S.-led invasion—are taking a toll in Iraq, especially in the high mountains and broad valleys of northeastern Iraq bordering Iran.

"Worldwide, it's one of the most severely affected areas," said Sherko Rashid, who manages a program based in Iraq's Sulaimaniyah province to find and remove land mines and unexploded ordnance. It's supported by a Norwegian charity.

Much of Sulaimaniyah was a battleground during the almost nine-year war. Iraqi and Iranian forces planted land mines to defend their positions, while firing mortars and artillery to weaken those of their enemy.

Poor records make it difficult to know how many land mines were sown, let alone where they are, Rashid said. By one estimate, 10 million to 15 million are scattered around northeastern Iraq alone.

Postwar explosions of mines and ordnance killed an estimated 3,500 Iraqi civilians in Kurdistan—the northern and northeastern provinces of Sulaimaniyah, Irbil and Dohuk—between 1991 and 2002. They injured 6,000.

Mahmood, the 15-year-old shepherd, had thought he could gently pick up the detonator before his cattle disturbed it.

"As I lifted it, it exploded," he said from his bed in a Sulaimaniyah hospital. "I was told by my friend that there were mines here, but I wasn't sure to what extent."

Alone at the time he was injured, Mahmood ran for about 15 minutes to his house. His family drove him three hours to the nearest hospital in a borrowed car.

Mahmood's injuries were mild compared with victims who lose limbs, but he fears losing his fingertips will stigmatize him as an amputee.

"I'm very sad," he said.

Land mines have economic consequences, too. They deny people access to grass for grazing, land for cultivation or water for irrigation, Rashid said. Disabilities also make it difficult for victims to work.

It's been nine years since Haider Hamma Aziz, 31, stepped on a land mine as he walked to his relatives' village in northeastern Iraq. He lost both legs at mid-thigh.

Aziz, once a farmer, hasn't worked since then. He lives in his father's house in Sulaimaniyah, with his wife and 3-month-old son. He has no income.

He feels "handicapped twice," he said, because he lost his livelihood along with his legs.

Often, he spends the day at Handicap International, a Belgium-based charity that has run a clinic in Sulaimaniyah since 1991. It makes prosthetic limbs and shows amputees how to use them.

Aziz is trying out a new pair of prosthetic legs, his second since his injury. Bracing himself between parallel bars, he took a dozen or so steps before resting, standing with his artificial knees locked upright and sipping a soda.

His regimen runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. almost daily. He hopes to spend less time in his wheelchair and get to the bathroom by himself. He doesn't even hope to work.

"People won't offer me work because I'm disabled," Aziz said.

On a rocky hillside an hour's drive from Sulaimaniyah and within sight of the Iranian border, deminers have worked since September 2002 to clear 20 acres of mines. They've finished less than two acres, unearthing 51 mines and 11 pieces of ordnance. They hope to be finished with the 20 acres by May 2005.

The site, near an Iraqi observation post used before and during the Iran-Iraq war, had been used for animals to graze. It includes a vineyard and lies within a few hundred feet of the main road linking several mountain villages.

"There have been a lot of casualties" from mines and ordnance embedded in the hillside, said Hersh Mohammed, who leads the 13-man demining team. That makes clearing it a top priority.

Deminers, hired and trained by Norwegian Peoples' Aid, work in heavy, Kevlar vests as they inch along narrow lanes. They drop to their knees when their metal detectors squeal a warning and begin to scrape away teaspoonfuls of earth with a trowel or bayonet.

Shrapnel, tin cans and other litter set off many false alarms. Elsewhere, telltale blue-tipped wooden stakes mark where the team has detonated mines with controlled explosions. In some uncleared places, weathered mines lie half-buried, exposed by years of erosion.

The miners earn $320 per month, a middle-class salary in Kurdistan.

Still, said Rashid, the Norwegian group's local demining program manager, "it's not easy to find a person for the job."

Farman Othman, 27, now a supervisor, did it for five years.

"You serve humanity when you clear mines," he said.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-LANDMINES


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