In the former ISIS stronghold of Fallujah, the legacy of extremism lingers in the form of unexploded landmines
Shuhada school sits on what was one of Iraq’s most violent frontlines, in the former ISIS stronghold of Fallujah, The Guardian said in a report on Thursday.
The report added that the children have to walk along a dirt road, the edges of which are lined with red-painted bricks and skull and crossbones signs that warn of the risk beyond the makeshift border – landmines laid by the extremist group.
Hundreds of the homemade devices are buried in fields, inside war-damaged houses and under roads, forming a densely-packed belt that stretches for 15km and more, according to the report.
Daily life for the people of Fallujah’s southern neighborhood of Shuhada is shaped by the surrounding minefields. They dictate where they can live, walk, farm and allow children to play.
One of the first Iraqi cities ISIS caliphate, Fallujah is left with the conflict’s lingering and deadly legacy.
As the morning classes end, minibusses and parents on foot arrive to pick up the children. Others leave together in small groups to walk home along routes made safe and marked by the Halo Trust, the British demining charity.
Reopening the school was a priority as families began slowly to return to the city. “It was impossible before, so the children were taught in caravans,” says Sami Hamad Abbas, the school’s deputy head.
The danger posed by the uncleared areas is hammered home to the pupils on a weekly basis, the report added.
“Every Thursday we have morning assembly inside the school,” adds Abbas. “We tell them about the danger of mines and tell them which safe routes to take.”
Even so, the nature of the risk is not always constant, says.
“In the last few days it’s been raining [softening the ground], so we told the children to stay at home because it was more dangerous.”
And Fallujah is symbolic of a far wider problem, the report suggests.
The report further added that devices ISIS produced on a semi-industrial basis to lay in large barrier minefields are scattered throughout northern and western Iraq, from Mosul – the site of the group’s last stand – to al-Qaim on the Syrian border, where the group is still fighting, contributing to the displacement of an estimated 1.7 million Iraqis.
The issue is not unique to Iraq. Similar homemade mines have been encountered from Afghanistan to Syria and Yemen – an escalating threat that has recently pushed global efforts to reduce landmine casualties into a sharp reverse.
If Shuhada is fortunate in any way, it is because, as one of the first of the Iraqi neighborhoods liberated from ISIS, the devices – unlike the mines of the cold war era – are slowly degenerating.
The neighborhood is also the focus of innovative efforts to clear its mine contamination. Among the organizations involved is the Britain-based Halo Trust, which began working there this summer. The organization is training local Iraqis in quicker and cheaper clearance techniques, using armored mechanical diggers that sift the devices out of the soil.
A short drive from the school, in al-Nuaimiya, the house of the family of Abdel Latif, aged 26, sits overlooking a dry ditch once used to water fields of wheat and barley. Children are playing in front of the house.
He explains that, because of the danger, they cannot leave the boundary of their little home.
The reason is immediately clear. In the field next to his half-destroyed farm, the wind and rain have exposed dozens of landmines less than 20 meters from where the children play.
“Four men were killed last year scavenging for metal in the ditch after triggering a mine,” he says. Residents are frustrated with the slow pace of clearance, prompting at least one local man to try to deactivate the mines himself.
“The Iraqi army’s bomb disposal people came,” he explains angrily, “but they left and, since then, they have not returned.”
Evidence of that danger was brutally underlined on Monday, when a shooting attack in a village to the north of Fallujah claimed the life of Meshan Khalil, a Halo survey team leader, who had accompanied the Guardian’s reporters, as well as the driver of one of Halo’s demining vehicles in Shuhada, while they were off-duty attending a village gathering.