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As ISIS Withdraws, Land Mines Lurk In Northern Syria

As ISIS retreat from several areas of northern Syria, they are leaving behind thousands of improvised explosive devices. The international community must address this danger for civilians, writes human rights activist Bassam al-Ahmad.

Written by Bassam al-Ahmad Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Screen shot 2016 09 01 at 9.05.28 am
A landmine disguised as a rock left behind by the Islamic State in the city of Manbij. Syria With No Mines Campaign

Over the last three months, dozens of civilians have lost their lives due to mines in the city of Manbij and the surrounding countryside. These deaths have outraged many who now question whether the various sides involved in the Syrian war even care about the lives of civilians. Some began to wonder whether they have been using the suffering of the Syrian people to serve their own agendas and propaganda.

It might be well known that some parties, such as the Syrian regime, the so-called Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [the former al-Qaida affiliate] have no consideration for people’s lives or their suffering. However, other groups continue to state that their primary goal is to protect the public, and they call for civilian protection during and after military operations. But the death toll from land mines continues to rise.

After two months of intense fighting, the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, took control of the entire city of Manbij last month, and forced ISIS to leave the Sirb neighborhood, its last stronghold there. ISIS withdrew to the city of Jarabulus, and that withdrawal coincided with the exodus of nearly 1,000 civilians, who, many activists believe, were taken hostage by the retreating forces. But the biggest shock for civilians returning to their homes in Manbij was that the militants had left behind a large number of concealed land mines in the neighborhoods they fled, including Sirb.

Residents and humanitarian organizations have been shocked by what they have found. ISIS left behind hundreds of handmade bombs and other live munitions, as well as thousands of concealed land mines and booby traps fashioned out of everyday objects, designed to kill or harm a person by luring them towards the explosive.

According to the Syrian Institute for Justice, a local organization that documents human rights violations in Syria, the land mines and other explosive devices left behind by ISIS have killed at least 135 civilians over the last three months, including 18 women and 27 children. Dozens of other injured people have been transferred to different cities, such as Kobani, for treatment. According to a source in the local al-Amal hospital, the facility has received 130 cases of land mine and other bomb-related major injuries, including the loss of limbs and eyes.

The recent explosions prompted Syrian human rights activists and organizations, such as Syrians for Truth and Justice and the Syrian Institute for Justice, to launch a campaign raising awareness about the danger of mines. The campaign, titled “Syria with No Mines,” urges the public to report these explosives while educating them on how to identify and avoid the explosives. It also urges civilians to protect themselves and each other by sharing photos of the different devices.

Despite the efforts of the campaign, many civilians have lost their lives while attempting to personally disarm these devices.

It has been estimated that 30,000 such devices have been left behind by ISIS in Manbij and its surrounding areas, with booby traps placed in everyday items such as soda cans, soap bottles, cups and tea kettles. Land mines had been made to look like natural rocks, and even piles of dirt. One of the most shocking devices found was a set of booby traps designed to look like garlic plants, which are used regularly in Syrian cooking.

The danger of land mines and other explosive devices will remain for years after the conflict’s end, and the most dangerous part is that both anti-tank and anti-personnel land mines naturally shift over time, making their removal very difficult even if their original locations are known.

The U.S.-led coalition, and United Nations branches and organizations focused on banning land mines, must all immediately intervene to end the suffering of the thousands of people living not only in Manbij but in all areas from which ISIS has withdrawn. Injuries to civilians, including children, by ISIS land mines have been reported in cities such as Kobani, Shaddad and Hol in the governorate of Hasaka. According to the “Syria with No Mines” campaign, there are only six people working on de-mining in the city of Shaddad. Sadly, these workers do not have modern equipment, yet they still disable and remove land mines and explosives using old methods that put their lives at risk every day.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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