Deadly Harvest | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Deadly Harvest 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:41 pm

It looks like any normal construction site. A pattern of foundations line trenches cut deep into the earth. Workers are busy handmixing and applying fresh cement to the newly minted cinder blocks that line and cover the crude broken stones of the foundation. The blocks will grow to form walls of a housing complex for dozens of families. Except this site is anything but normal. Aside from its location in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, just over the Azmar Mountain range from Sulaimaniyeh, a young child recently lost three fingers here when an unexploded unidentified piece of ordnance left over from the days of the Iran-Iraq war blew up at his touch.

If not for this tragedy, the story reads like a “things gone right” tale of Iraq. The housing under construction here in Samsawa is meant for 1,500 Kurdish internally displaced persons (IDPs), forced to leave their homes as part of Saddam Hussein’s retaliatory “Arabization” of Kurdistan after the First Gulf War. In addition to draining the southern Mesopotamian Marshlands in an effort to remove Shiite Marsh Arabs from the region and destroy their 7,000-year-old culture, Saddam’s campaign forced Kurds from Kurdistan while at the same time enticing Arabs north to take the Kurd’s homes, virtually replacing them—ethnic cleansing tactics that have created a tense legacy in today’s already intense Iraq.

The Kurdish IDP families are a minute representation of the estimated one million Iraqis displaced by Saddam’s regime pre-2003 and the current conflict. At present, these families live in a makeshift shanty village immediately next to the construction site, which in the 1980s and `90s was an Iraqi military base. Located close to the Iranian border, it housed the infamous Peshmerga—Kurdish freedom fighters who date back to fall of the Ottoman Empire, include women within their ranks, and whose name literally means “those who face death”—who currently provide security to northern Iraq. The site is also home to munitions, the exact amount yet to be discovered, buried when Iranians threatened to overrun the area.

A BURIED WAR
“So far we’ve removed 240 mortars, a combination of 105 and 122mm artillery projectiles, type 63 107mm Chinese rockets, and mortars sized 120 down to 60mm, an assortment of RPG tail heads, fuses, and other items, all ready to be fired save for a fuse,” says Mick Beeby, on-site technical field manager of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Iraq. A neutral and impartial international humanitarian organization with fundraising arms in both the US and UK, MAG has been working to remove such leftovers from various conflicts and wars—former and current—in 35 countries (out of an estimated 82 known to be mined) since 1989.

Mostly funded by institutional donors, governments, and foundations and other charities, MAG’s income—$8 million in 1995, growing to $62 million by 2007—is project-specific, meaning the funds can only be spent on predetermined projects and activities. However, it also benefits from public donations and fundraising campaign like a recent “Celebrity Shoe Auction” in the UK. Such “unrestricted” income enables it to react quickly to emergencies, or to fund projects where other funding isn’t available.

MAG’s work in the Shamsawa is funded by the US State Department program Grants for Conventional Weapons Destruction and to Assist Injured Conflict Survivors, overseen by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (OWRA). To help reduce the reported 5,751 casualties worldwide from explosive remnants of war and landmines in 2006, OWAR “approved more than $4.4 million in grants to 32 organizations to destroy conventional weapons, landmines, and explosive remnants of war, and to assist those who have been permanently injured by conflict,” from its projected $123 million budget for conventional weapons destruction in fiscal year 2008.

Beeby’s grant obligations stipulate that his six Mine Action Teams and three Community Liaison Teams operating within the Sulaimaniyeh sector must work on 3.9 million square meters of land per contract period, which is one year in this case. “Donors just don’t give money for nothing. I have to actually physically clear 650,000 square meters, plus another 3.52 million [need] to be demarcated. I also have to destroy a minimum of 4000 items ranging from mines to UXO (unexploded ordnance), which includes such items as unexploded bombs, rockets, missiles, mortars, and grenades.” Beeby’s work—either demarcation efforts or actual ground clearance—must have an immediate effect on 10,000 beneficiaries, people who can once again use the land. Direct beneficiaries from clearance efforts at the construction site number 1,500, and 3,000 indirectly. Pointing to one of his team leaders Beeby says, “He has to destroy 770 items per month for 10 months to meet his team’s quota. This is not a problem at all.” After all, 500 “live” items were removed from just one pit among many excavated in the construction site, in addition to what is called “scrap”—spent ammunition cases, projectiles, and mortars with no explosive fill, and three Katyusha missiles. “You do get a lot of explosive harvesting in this part of the world,” says Beeby.

HARVESTING EXPLOSIVES
While MAG’s work at the construction site did not begin in time to save the fingers of the young child, that was not due to any fault on their part. “We were supposed to start this task on the fifth of May but the contractor wouldn’t let us, because he didn‘t want to delay construction,” says MAG Technical Field Manager, Mechanical, Brendon Remshaw, in an incredibly thick British accent. The first person to speak to me as I arrived at the site, his accent however, was not thick enough for me to misunderstand his greeting: “Wearing flip flops to a construction site is not a good idea.” He is easily forgiven when he tells me of the single place in Kurdistan where dark beer is served.

A mechanic by trade, Remshaw has been working in Iraq for the last two-and-half years after coming straight from a stint in Sudan with a different NGO. Leaving Sudan because there was “no action,” a clearly irate Remshaw says he takes the boy’s injury personally. “They [cleared] half of the danger area [before we arrived]. Then we thought we got permission to start but [the] paperwork [did not arrive]. I wasn’t a very happy man. We found out after the contractor had left the site that the little kid had lost three fingers. But wasn’t what actually got the contractor to stop, it was because the Governorate officials got involved. But if they would have let us start when we wanted to, the job would be finished now and the kid would not have lost his fingers. And I haven’t seen the contractor since.”

Like tag team wrestlers, the two burly men, Beeby and Remshaw, give me the full picture of their work on the site. The team will walk the box—a targeted area cordoned off and searched—doing a visual sweep twice. Any surface items or scrap metal detected by the metal detector will see them stop, raise their hand, identify to the team leader that they have found an item. The team leader will come forward and tell them whether the item is safe to move or not. Scrap metal will simply be picked up and put in a bucket. “If the team leader can’t make a judgment call, he will speak to an international or national supervisor, one of whom is always on-site. In some other cases—mechanical operations, Remshaw’s area of expertise—a “roller” is used. A team member sits in an armored cabin, drives over the field, applies pressure, explodes the mines hit, and marks the spot. But the roller cannot detect everything and afterward team members carrying metal detectors walk the field.

“Basically we remove a lot of surface items, and most of it will be scrap,” Beeby says. Found items are then placed in a storage pit and taken weekly to a remote demolition pit. “How they will explode or if they will explode is questionable,” Beeby says. “I don’t know how long they have been in the ground.” What he does know is that two of the items found at the Shamsawa construction site were mines: a V69 of Italian manufacture, and an American M15.

Focusing my eyes into the scrap pit, the metal of some of the items is so rusted and earth worn, deciphering the “items” from the dirt that surrounds them is, in some cases, virtually impossible.

Beeby then introduces me to Rebaz Azad, a national member of the MAG team and this site’s Community Liaison Coordinator. He is oversees all four Community Liaison Teams who carry out community and impact assessments, analyzing what the threat is in the local area and how it affects the local community and population. “At the end of the day,” says Beeby, “realistically, everyone completes their meters. But what’s the point of clearing meters that nobody wants to use?” One of MAG’s main priorities is to get a high value impact on any clearance operation they carry out. They look to create access to water sources, free land for agriculture, and reduce the potential for further conflict. They are about to start working in the village of Saraw, what MAG classifies as a “high impact community.” Mines found and confirmed to be affecting the community are Italian V69s and Chinese anti-personnel mines.

During the winter months, Saraw has between 120 and 130 inhabitants, but during the cultivation season the population increases to 500. All are Kurdish citizens and all are literally living on the edge of a minefield. “In this one valley alone, there are up to 19 minefields, says Beeby. “These areas have been demarcated in the past, but the markers fall over or get removed for various reasons. This is the sort of work the Community Liaison Teams produce. Eventually, in the long term, everything has to be cleared. But if you go for the high impact testings first, people can rehabilitate, repatriate, and we can make an immediate effect to the community and people’s lives.”


THE ART OF MINING
Creating safe areas where people can go about their ordinary lives and eventually thrive is a priority for MAG staffers. However, frustration marks various aspects their work, some of it stemming from the very people they are trying to help. According to Stuart Lappington, another MAG technical field manager, injuries or fatalities from remnant explosives in Kurdistan occur at least once a month. “It comes in fits and starts depending upon the time of year. Now it is grazing time and the farmers and sheep are about.” Highlighting the importance of demarcation and the hazards of its removal, he tells a story about an area that had been demarcated four weeks earlier. “Someone decided the warning markers made better fence poles. A local farmer told MAG he had two of his sheep blown up. When they went to examine the area, they recognized it as a known minefield and saw that the warning markers had been stolen.”

Unlike Beeby, who belongs to MAG’s Mine Action Group, Lappington is connected to their Conflict Recovery Program for Iraq. “We’ll demarcate a minefield, walk off and do another one, maybe four or five. By the time we get done with the fifth one, we’ll go back to the first one and half the markers are gone. That happens quite a lot. Demarcation is a constant job. We have identified hundreds of demarcated areas. I’ve got four teams working constantly and we’ve worked 160,000 square meters of land.”

An arms and explosive disposal officer during his 23-and-a-half-year stint in the Royal Air Force, Lappington is an expert in his field. Leaving the military eight months ago, he began work with MAG immediately. Our conversation turns specifically to mines. There are three types. The first is called a blast mine, the force of which can amputate a limb. Next is the blast and fragmentation mine, which is designed to take the limb of the person who steps on it and also spreads fragmentation within the surrounding area, damaging anyone within its range. The third is called a bounding mine. Once tripped, the mine will pop up approximately waist-high and initiate. Minefields aren’t designed to kill, Lappington adds. “They are designed to maim. They are laid out to instill fear in a body of troops moving forward and impede their progress.” Once the conflict ends the mines remain and the civilian population becomes victim because minefields can be found anywhere, even in riverbeds. In Iraq, minefields were historically deployed to defend military posts.


POLITICAL MINEFIELDS
Iraq is probably one of the most contaminated areas worldwide, says Lappington. “It’s been fought over for many years, so not only do the minefields and ordnance come from internal disputes, but also from the Iranians and others.” According to Lappington, the few years before and after 1993 saw a lot of mines placed, some against the coalition forces at the start of the First Gulf War, others were laid on the “Green Line”—the border area that separates Kurdistan Iraq from the rest of Iraq. “Saddam laid a load of mines along that line to stop black market trade and keep the Kurdish people from entering Iraq and vice versa. If you look the Green Line on the map, probably 99 percent of that was mined. The last lot of mines were laid last year, I think it was.”

“By whom?” I ask. “I think it was Turkey,” says Lappington. “Don’t quote me on that. We don’t get told who lays mines.” He tells me he heard a report about Turkey laying mines on the news. I ask, “So you saw it on the news, but you have no knowledge—”

“No.”

“And if you did, would you tell me?”

Silence and a friendly smile.

It is no secret that last year Turkey began making small forays into northern Kurdistan, although Turkey’s foreign minister denied this occurred. This led to a major incursion of Turkish troops into northern Iraq in February, the latest skirmish in a multi-year struggle between Turkey and the Kurdish PKK that has seen the deaths of over 30,000 people (mostly Kurds). With the US (a MAG donor) a longstanding ally to both Turkey and the Kurds of northern Iraq, whose separatist tendencies unnerve Turkey with its own restive Kurdish population, Turkey laying mines in northern Iraq is inescapably political. As an apolitical organization, however, MAG doesn’t involve itself in the who and why of the laying of mines. Anyone can ask them to clear mines and no questions are asked. Their mission is to clear land, make it socio-economically viable, and also to satisfy their donors.

“How dangerous is this work?” I ask. “I heard you lost two people a few months ago.” Again silence, to which I protest. “We don’t want to publicize what happened,” he says. “Obviously, by nature, the job that we do is fairly dangerous. We’re working with mines, with unexploded ordnance.” He says that while they’ve lost no internationals, they have lost local staff, but he cannot tell me how many in the last five years. He then asks, “Who told you about the accident?” Later, after doing some legwork, I find that yes, two local members of their team had been killed at a site of supposedly non-risk items. One died on scene and the other at the hospital.



“DANGER CLOSE”

As Beeby and I walk the construction area, his team members load up the UXO into a pickup truck and soon we are off to the demolition site. It is a jarring ride on a partially eroded road streaming its way through the round-topped mountains covered with dried grass and dotted with contrasting green bushy-head trees. The wind gusts occasionally from one direction and then dies down, only to pick up from the opposite direction. It is the dry season here in northern Iraq. To make matters worse, the entire country is experiencing a severe drought. What the Iraqi’s call “dust” rises up some days to the point where you cannot see the ever-vigilant mountain range normally visible from any vantage point on a clear day. One Baghdad woman living now in Sulaimaniyeh told me a cousin’s husband had died a few days ago from an asthma attack. Two days later his mother was found dead from the same cause.

We arrive at the isolated site; a pit in the ground reached by a 100-yard length of dirt road where one end is nestled in the valleys of three adjoining mountains and the other opening to the eroded road we have been traveling on. “I have no objection to your being at the firing zone, and when it comes to the firing, I have no objection to your being at the firing point,” says Beeby. “But we are danger close and in the splash zone,” adding something about “frag,” the meaning of which I don’t catch. He then explains we will be in a culvert and says I can set up my camera to a timed exposure. I immediately reject this idea and then it suddenly dawns on me that “frag” is the splintered and torn shards of metal from past controlled demolitions that have lined our walk to the firing point and look deadly enough to kill. It is unimaginable what even one of these frags would do to my gear. Beebe then adds, “But I can’t guarantee that your camera won’t get smashed. But you can be right next to the guy priming the exploder, and watch him pressing the button. You’ll be inside protection.” He explains the culvert is down at the road where we parked, a distance of approximately 300 feet.

“Is there any live visual?” I ask.

“No, because we are danger close.” Pushing the idea of his arranging for me to have a view of the actual explosion, I point to the road and say, “But from there, is there a visual?” A patient man, he hesitates and before he responds I answer my own question, “No, there is not a visual.” Beeby explains the benefits of this location. “It is ideal because access in and out of the site can be easily controlled. And that is the idea of a controlled demolition site—you’ve got control of the ground so you don’t frighten the local population or innocent people. You generally find children are very inquisitive and as soon as you arrive at a location, they are all over the place. And trying to explain what we are doing, either by way of the local police or their parents, doesn’t really work.”

THE POETRY OF DEMOLITION
The logic of the demolition activities is almost as exquisite as the language used to describe it. The pit itself is approximately 10 feet deep. Its bottom is lined with a neatly stacked mound of mortars and other ordnance—smaller items on bottom and largest on top. Then what are called initiation charges are strapped to the top mortars. These charges act as a fuse that “sympathetically” detonates the top layer, the detonation of which will in turn sympathetically travel down through the stack. “Explosives are like electricity,” says Beeby. “They will take the easiest route out, but you will get enough of a shockwave to initiate the items below.”

Yes, the language is exquisite, a poetry of explosive devices and their potential—a clean aesthetic diction that belies its subject entirely. The actual explosives that will ignite this stack are two inert liquids—what Beeby calls binary explosives—that when mixed together will explode. “They’re in bottles and you’ll see them doing charge preparation shortly.” Ever press conscious, he adds, “That’s normally a good action shot as well.”

Most ordnance can’t be destroyed on-site, so it must be transported to the safest place where its demolition can occur. The move I witnessed was relatively safe. Others, called controlled moves, contain more dangerous items. Beeby conducted one of these a few days earlier, removing 68 items from the site. The press is not invited to such events. “We had to remove it,” he explains. “We couldn’t destroy it there. The fragmentation zone of a 122mm is in the region of 800 to 1000 meters.”

In this particular case, the construction site is immediately adjacent to the makeshift IDP shanty town in Shamsawa, near the home of Mamjalal Taliban—translated, it means Uncle Jalal Talabani—the Kurdish president of Iraq and head of the Kurdish PUK political party. No one is really interested in disturbing him in his Peshmerga-controlled region.

After allowing me to photograph the munitions being loaded into the pit, the connecting of the charges, and bolstering of the pile with sandbags, we walk down to the culvert and all cars and personnel are ordered to leave the area. Staff radio that the road is clear, the minimal traffic traversing the eroded road is stopped some distance from us in both directions, and we enter to the three-foot opening of the 50-foot-long cement culvert. As promised, I am allowed to enter after the primer, the person who will actually detonate the explosives. After being out in the bright sun, the blackness shocks my eyes. There is a countdown and then the detonation. Within a second or two, the blast is not only heard, but the pressure emanating knocks the culvert ceiling against my head. Within seconds after the ignition, I hear what sounds like a Harley go by and think that of all vehicles, nothing could be worse than a motorcycle going by at this time. “There goes a frag, and a pretty big one at that,” says Beeby. No motorcycle, just a huge chunk of now-exploded ordnance passing over us in the air.

ORDINANCE ORDINANCE EVERYWHERE

It is no exaggeration to say that Iraq is possibly the most contaminated areas worldwide in terms of unexploded ordnance, mine fields and leftover objects of destruction. In just the last few days I have had friends here in Sulaimaniyeh show me recently taken photos of remnant missiles and explosives—one was of an abandoned Katyusha rocket partially sticking up out of the ground, spotted while hiking in the northern mountains. Another showed two 18-inch long missiles lying side by side on top of dried mud in the southern marshlands. I myself have seen remnants of long ago war—portable Iranian bridge sections half floating in a remote dam-fed lake region and huge rusted hulks of missile-launching stanchions on the shore of a secluded riverbed area, to name a few. None of them recent, none of them from the ongoing conflict.

“These areas have been mined for many years,” says Lappington. “We’ve gone in and cleared it and all of a sudden they’ve got this big vast expanse that the children can play on. This gives me a sense of achievement. I’ve used my skills, which have taken me a long time to acquire, to make the land safe. The politics don’t matter. Back home in Ireland, I can walk where I want. And I come here and you’ve got the children, their families that can’t go in certain areas because they’re mined and there UXO is lying around. As MAG’s logo says, we’re saving lives and building futures.”

click to enlarge MAG team members line the demolition pit with the unexploded - ordnance removed from the Samsawa Village construction site in - Kurdistan, northern Iraq.
  • MAG team members line the demolition pit with the unexplodedordnance removed from the Samsawa Village construction site inKurdistan, northern Iraq.
click to enlarge Explosives harvested from the Samsawa Village construction site - in Kurdistan, northern Iraq include 240 size mortars, a combination of - 105 and 122mm artillery projectiles, type 63 107mm Chinese rockets, and - mortars sized 120 down to 60mm, an assortment of RPG tail heads, and fuses - stored in a pit and awaiting transport to an isolated demolition site.
  • Explosives harvested from the Samsawa Village construction sitein Kurdistan, northern Iraq include 240 size mortars, a combination of105 and 122mm artillery projectiles, type 63 107mm Chinese rockets, andmortars sized 120 down to 60mm, an assortment of RPG tail heads, and fusesstored in a pit and awaiting transport to an isolated demolition site.
click to enlarge Construction workers pouring fresh cement onto newly minted - cinder blocks that will eventually become the foundation for housing in - Samsawa Village in Kurdistan, northern Iraq for Kurdish IDPs, displaced - under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
  • Construction workers pouring fresh cement onto newly mintedcinder blocks that will eventually become the foundation for housing inSamsawa Village in Kurdistan, northern Iraq for Kurdish IDPs, displacedunder the regime of Saddam Hussein.
click to enlarge A member of the MAG team straps initiation charges to one of the - large mortars that top off the demolition pit filled with explosives - harvested form the Samsawa Village construction site in Kurdistan, - northern Iraq.
  • A member of the MAG team straps initiation charges to one of thelarge mortars that top off the demolition pit filled with explosivesharvested form the Samsawa Village construction site in Kurdistan,northern Iraq.
click to enlarge The demolition pit immediately after the detonation of the explosives that were harvested from the Samsawa construction site in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.
  • The demolition pit immediately after the detonation of the explosives that were harvested from the Samsawa construction site in Kurdistan, northern Iraq.
click to enlarge A MAG team member stands next to the pickup truck loaded with unexploded ordnance found at the Samsawa Village construction site awaiting transport to the MAG demolition pit.
  • A MAG team member stands next to the pickup truck loaded with unexploded ordnance found at the Samsawa Village construction site awaiting transport to the MAG demolition pit.
click to enlarge A MAG team member explains the layout of the Samsawa Village construction site in Kurdistan, northern Iraq and points out where exact spots the explosives were harvested from.
  • A MAG team member explains the layout of the Samsawa Village construction site in Kurdistan, northern Iraq and points out where exact spots the explosives were harvested from.
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