Saddam's deadly legacy: 40 years after war with Iran, border area is still littered with landmines
A deminer from the mine advisory group has an explosive ready with which he will detonate land mines that were planted near the Iranian border in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war - Sam Tarling / Sam Tarling
At first glance, the Mawat district in northeast Iraq is a rustic idyll, a belt of rolling hills lined with olive and fruit groves. On closer inspection - as many visitors learned the hard way - it's full of hidden dangers.
What looks like Tuscany in the Middle East was once at the forefront of the eight-year Iraq war against Iran, in which Saddam Hussein's army dug huge amounts of landmines. Countless Russian and Italian anti-personnel devices lurk in its ravines and orchards - all still fatal.
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Despite almost 30 years of mine clearance work, more than half is left today - a blatant reminder of the extent of the so-called "legacy mine" threat in former war zones.
"We get a lot of requests from mayors and villagers to evacuate the area," says Jabar Fatih Mahmoud, 49, an Iraqi employee with the Mines Advisory Group, the UK charity, when he showed The Telegraph in a minefield listed on his minefield as a clearance card as' Kalka Shenka 2C '.
"But this region is also popular with picnickers, and not everyone knows the mines are here."
The minefields in Mawat and the surrounding Sulaymaniyah governorate are a grim example of how such weapons are used not only for military purposes, but also to actively punish civilians.
A deminer working for the Mine Advisory Group observes a controlled detonation of land mines planted during the Iran-Iraq war - Sam Tarling / Sam Tarling
The area is a heartland of the Kurdish population in Iraq, whose armed forces sided with Iran during the 1980-88 war. When the local Kurds returned to the area afterwards, they found that Saddam's forces had sown it with far more mines than were needed for defensive purposes.
The soldiers also did not leave warning signs or keep maps of where the mines were laid, according to Rae McGrath, founder of MAG, who first surveyed the area in 1992.
In a report for Human Rights Watch, McGrath, a former British Army engineer, said, "It is a reasonable conclusion that the Iraqi army laid and abandoned these millions of mines to render large areas of Kurdistan unusable forever." . "
In recent years, around 5,975 people have been killed in landmine accidents and a further 1,350 injured in Sulaymaniyah.
MAG, which has 750 employees in Iraq, wants to sort them all out at some point, but it is a task that is measured in decades, not years. In Sulaymaniyah alone there are 208 square kilometers of mine-contaminated land. That's almost ten times the area contaminated during the 1982 war in the Falkland Islands, which was finally declared landmine-free last month.
Only 81 square kilometers have been cleared in Sulaymaniyah so far - although even that number seems impressive when you see firsthand how careful the evacuation process must be.
A deminer prepares for a controlled explosion of landmines planted during the Iran-Iraq war in the village of Dir near the Iranian border - Sam Tarling / Sam Tarling
It is performed one square meter at a time, either by MAG staff using hand-held detectors or by dogs trained to smell vapor from explosives. An employee can only evacuate a maximum of 100 meters per day while a dog can evacuate approximately 600 meters. However, if a mine is found, the procedures become even slower.
For example, on the day of our visit, the employees located four PMN mines made in Russia - dark, palm-sized disks that are barely visible in the ground around them. One is buried in the soft earth of a steep ravine, large piles of which must be excavated first to get there safely.
The PMN, known as the "Black Widow" because of its dark color, represents the calculated brutality of landmine design. It contains roughly five times the amount of explosives found in regular anti-personnel mines, meaning victims are likely to lose not just a foot, but their entire leg, or be killed instantly.
Another common mine is the Italian Valmara 69, a hedgehog-shaped device with spikes that act as triggers. Based on the German-made WWII "Bouncing Betty" design, the initial charge propels the mine half a meter into the air, where it then sets off a horizontal shrapnel explosion that can kill anyone within a 25 meter radius.
Nine million Valmaras were sold to Iraq in the 1980s despite an arms embargo, which resulted in the incarceration of seven executives from Valsella, the company that made them, in 1991.
Given the dangers they face, evacuation teams always work with medical professionals, with distances and travel times to the nearest hospitals close at hand. Mr Mahmoud himself nearly died in 1994 when he and a colleague accidentally strayed into a field of Chinese-made plastic mines - which were difficult to spot with metal detectors.
An old anti-personnel land mine awaits demolition in a minefield that was planted in the village of Dir - Sam Tarling / Sam Tarling during the Iran-Iraq war
"My colleague triggered one behind me that I already crossed and just missed," he said. "There was a huge bang with lightning and smoke, and I was covered in my colleague's blood and skin. At first I couldn't tell if it was a dream or just a reality."
When Mr Mahmoud found that he was surrounded by mines, he had to stay where he was while others rescued him and his injured companion, who survived. It has not stopped Mr Mahmoud from continuing to devote his life to demining, although the scale of the task is so great that he may not see it completed in his life.
According to the Landmine Monitor database, Iraq is the most heavily land-draped country in the world with around 650 square kilometers of land contaminated by mines and 200 square kilometers contaminated by Isis bombs and booby traps.
"With current capacity and funding, it will take 85 years to clear the old mines in Sulaymaniyah," said Jack Morgan, MAG's Iraq country director.
The Iraqi task, in turn, is dwarfed by the global evacuation challenge, which is now an estimated 25,000 square kilometers of contaminated land - an area larger than Wales.
And while 164 of the 193 countries in the world are now parties to the Ottawa Treaty, which bans anti-personnel mines - aided by the late Princess Diana - new minefields are still emerging everywhere, often planted by insurgents like Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia.
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