This piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph magazine in February 2017. Photos by Sean Sutton, who doubles up as MAG’s spokesman. There is also an accompanying piece for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent
All it took for Muqdad Ghalib Hamid to die was to turn on his TV. Last October, after two years in exile, he returned to his home village of Barima, a farming hamlet on the plains outside the Iraqi city of Mosul. The Isil fighters who had seized it back in 2014 had just been driven out after a battle with Kurdish troops, and from a distance, most of it seemed as if it was in ruins. Yet as he picked his way down streets razed by air strikes, he was delighted to find the family home still intact. Inside, he picked up the TV remote, wondering if the satellite dish still had a signal. A huge explosion followed, killing the father of two and leaving his brother badly injured.
The bomb that ripped Hamid apart was one of hundreds of Isil booby traps scattered around Barima, and was probably triggered by the remote’s infrared `on’ switch. The secrets of exactly how it worked are still buried in rubble, but there is little doubt who it was intended for. The fighters who planted it would have known that the soldiers pursuing them would not have time to sit watching TV. Their target was ordinary Iraqi civilians like Hamid, whose only crime was wanting to come home. In his case, it was the TV remote that killed him. Others have died opening booby-trapped fridges, freezers, cupboards and chicken coops, turning on lights, or simply pushing open their front door.
Similar tales can now be heard all over the Mosul region, as the Western-backed push to retake Isil’s Iraqi capital gains ground. It was here, in June 2014, that the black-masked militants first swept through from Syria, routing the Iraqi army and emptying Mosul’s central bank vaults of $400 million. It was Isil’s coming-of-age moment, turning it from just another faction in Syria’s civil war into the world’s richest and most feared terrorist group. But after three months of intense fighting, a huge force of Western-backed Kurdish and Iraqi troops has now retaken most of Mosul’s eastern half, as well as hinterland villages like Barima. It is now only a matter of time before they reach Mosul’s symbolic grand mosque, where Isil’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, once grandly declared a new `caliphate’.
Yet as the `caliphate’ has shrunk, Isil’s foot soldiers have ensured that every inch of their former turf remains a killing field. In their wake, they have laid hundreds of thousands of booby traps and home-made landmines, planting them on a scale seldom seen in modern warfare. `This is one of the toughest challenges we’ve faced in decades, and this whole region is just one huge minefield,’ says Sean Sutton, the international spokesman for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a British charity specialising in mine clearance, as he takes me on a careful tour through Barima and other former front-line villages. `Isil are distributing these things over a massive area, with a lot simply planted to catch people out as they return home.’
There is a poignancy to the timing of our visit. Last month was the 20th anniversary of the late Princess Diana’s visit to a minefield in Angola, when she famously gave her backing to the Ottawa Treaty. It aims to stop the use of landmines in conflict because of their danger to civilians, especially children. Britain signed the treaty later that year, and since then, so have 161 other countries. Yet the very qualities that make landmines unacceptable to others make them ideal to Isil. Not only do they kill civilians indiscriminately, they create a hazard that lingers long after the fighting ends.
As we tour Barima, there is the occasional distant boom of American air strikes on Mosul itself, the outskirts of which are only five miles away. Round here, though, a mighty bang can be achieved just by stepping off the street. On either side of us, sticking out amid the half-destroyed shops and homes, are yellow poles where mines have already been removed,and taped-off areas where others still lie.
They stretch as far as the eye can see, yet Barima is nothing special. Further towards the front lines, there is a `barrier minefield’ 16 miles long. And at the entrance to the nearby town of Bashiqa, we slalom along a road pockmarked with mine craters. `We pulled 1.5 tons of explosive from this 100-metre stretch of road alone,’ Sutton says. `It shows you what we’re up against.’ Formed in 1989 by Rae McGrath, a former British Army engineer, MAG was set up in response to the problem of landmines left after the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Along with the Halo Trust, another British charity, it is responsible for more than half of the world’s humanitarian demining work, tidying up the mess left behind in all the dirtiestconflict zones, from Somalia and the Balkans through to Lebanon and post-war Cambodia. Yet when it comes to using landmines to target civilians, Isil has outdone even murderous death cults like the Khmer Rouge.
And rather than using conventional anti-personnel devices, designed simply to maim, Isil goes all out to kill. A standard anti-personnel mine might have 100g (4oz) of explosive, enough to remove a victim’s foot but still leave them alive. The smallest Isil mine, by contrast, has six kilos (13lbs) of homemade explosive, roughly equal to three kilos of TNT. That’s enough to cripple a tank. Just around the corner from Hamid’s house, we see the effects of such a mine close-up. Smeared across a wall is a 4ft splash of dried blood.
It came from the remains of a Kurdish colonel, who was flung against it by the blast from a booby trap he was defusing 50 yards away. `He was on the other side of that mosque over there when it went off,’ says a Kurdish official escorting us, pointing to a white minaret. `It threw him right over the top.’
In such a hazard-strewn environment, one might expect to find every village declared a no-go area for civilians until further notice. This, however, is Iraq, where healthand-safety culture is in its infancy, and where local security forces still have a war with Isil to finish off. A few Kurdish forces are posted to guard each village but there is limited capacity to stop civilians from returning. `Many are living in rented houses or UN camps, and they’re desperate to get back to their own homes,’ Sutton says.
Sure enough, in Bashiqa, we hear children’s laughter. A family of eight, including two smiling toddlers, have just arrived back, and are unpacking their belongings in their front yard, where Isil graffiti still declares `Respect God’. It looks like a scene from a Unicef press release, were it not for the fact that just outside the yard is a 20ft-deep crater left by a US air strike that targeted an Isil bomb factory next door. `We do discourage families from coming back, but in practice, there is not much we can do,’ says Sutton, as two Iraqi MAG workers give the family a mine-awareness crash course.
`The security forces did basic mine clearance here when they pushed Isil out, but that is only to military standard, which means clearing key routes. None of the houses or surrounding areas have been cleared. We don’t have the manpower to do it quickly enough, and in the meantime, people are getting killed and injured.’ The male householder, Jamal Mustapha, seems grateful for the warnings, and promises he will not let his children wander outside again.
However, it is not unusual for local MAG workers to have to plead with householders not to enter houses which are known to be boobytrapped. Many locals try to defuse the mines themselves, with one man recently putting 60 devices on a bonfire outside his home. `He put petrol on them and drove away,’ says Sutton. `When they blew up, his entire house was destroyed and 14 neighbours’ houses damaged too.
It’s fair to say he’s not popular right now.’ For most, the message only gets through the hard way. In the village of Wardak, a freshly dug grave in the cemetery holds the mangled remains of Ghazwan Salin, a 14-year-old shepherd boy killed by a landmine last month. His father, Saadla, 52, stifles tears as he describes the huge bang that echoed through the village just after lunchtime. `My son had been dancing with his younger sister here in the lounge, then he went out with the sheep,’ Saadla says. `We’d been back here for four months, and had never had any accidents. Then we heard the explosion, and I ran barefoot in the direction of the sound. The only part of my son’s body that wasn’t burnt was his head.’
In the nearby village of Tullaban the slaughter has been far worse, with 10 dead and five injured in the first month that residents returned. The casualties stopped after the arrival of Salaam Muhammed, a veteran Iraqi MAG field expert. His team has now removed 1,000 landmines and booby traps from Tullaban alone. `Normally we only deploy a couple of teams per village, but here we’ve had to have five because of the extreme contamination,’ says Muhammed, who speaks with Mancunianinflected English picked up from his British MAG mentors.
`You have to be extremely thorough, as this is farmland that people and their children want to live and work on.’ Now 47, Muhammed has dedicated his life to mine clearance. A farmer’s son himself, he grew up during both the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds two conflicts that once again saw landmines scattered in abundance. As a young man, he witnessed someone lose his leg to one, and when MAG set up a mission in Kurdish northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, he joined up straight away. `It’s not a normal job, but I believe in what I’m doing,’ he says. `The situation here reminds me of my youth, with people fleeing their homes, then coming back and facing even more tragedy.’
In clearing up another village, Muhammed has had help from an unlikely source: a map left by an Isil fighter, which details in spidery handwriting where the mines are laid. While he does not rely on it, fearing it could be a `come on’, it does correspond to places where villagers have died. Yet even this insight into Isil’s mindset could not prepare him for what he found near Tullaban’s school building. `The mines buried round the school were different to the other ones in the village: they required much less weight to activate them,’ he says, pointing at the yellow sticks besieging the squat single-storey building.
`The only reason I can think of is to deliberately target school pupils.’ Despite Isil’s worst intentions, most of the devices they lay are relatively easily dealt with. In the fields around Tullaban, MAG has an armoured tractor that can plough across fields to check they are safe. The booby traps, though, are more complicated. MAG does not disclose its defusing techniques, but says Isil constantly changes its methods and often uses anti-tamper devices. Particularly dangerous are houses where dead Isil fighters lie, many of whom wear suicide vests. Designed so that even a badly injured fighter can blow himself up as his dying act, they often have multiple switches that are designed to be easily detonated.
`That can make them more challenging to defuse,’ says `Chris’, an ex-military MAG expert who asks to be identified by a pseudonym for security reasons. He recently dealt with a house with eight dead Isil fighters, two wearing suicide belts. Yet the real challenge around Mosul is the sheer scale of Isil’s bomb production operation, which is clear from the controlled explosion that Chris is about to carry out. Laid out before us in a trench that once served as the Kurdish front line are a dozen 10gallon containers packed with explosive, plus hundreds of home-made rockets and mortars. `Here, taste that, you’ll see it’s very salty.’ Chris takes a small scoop of white powder from one of the containers, which is packed with ammonium nitrate fertiliser.
It tastes like a petroleum-tinged version of the rock salt popular in London delis. Yet mixed with other ingredients easily found on any industrial estate, it turns into explosive. `Drive over one of them and it will f–up your day pretty badly,’ Chris says. The haul three tons in all is the result of just two weeks’ clearance work. What is equally chilling, though, is the quality of the rockets and mortars, which look as if they have come from a munitions-factory production line. In fact, Chris says, there is no such factory in Mosul. Which means most of this stuff is forged in ordinary machine-tool workshops in Mosul most likely using slave labour. `They are churning it out on an industrial scale,’ he says. `
And what we are seeing may be nothing compared to what lies ahead.’ As of yet, nobody knows quite how many people have been killed by mines and booby traps around Mosul, although the casualties in villages such as Tullaban give a snapshot. There are, moreover, hundreds of settlements like this just in Mosul’s hinterland, and in the coming months, hundreds of thousands more civilians are expected to return. The clear-up job, Sutton says, is `a race against time’. Yet MAG, which has about 60 demining staff around Mosul already, could almost double its capacity if it had an extra $10 million on top of its existing $15 million Iraq budget. One might expect that this would be simply a case of HMG writing a quick cheque $10 million, after all, is peanuts for a government already struggling to spend its £11 billion annual aid budget, ring-fenced by David Cameron at 0.7 per cent of national income.
And judging by the smiles that greet MAG staff in places like Barima, it is a perfect example of soft power unlike, for example, the Department for International Development’s recent £5million project to fund an Ethiopian Spice Girls group, axed last month after a public outcry. Yet aid politics are never straightforward, and right now Britain funds mine-clearance operations through the UN wider humanitarian assistance pool. That has other urgent priorities as well, and only gives MAG $500,000 per year. Sutton declines to be drawn on whether a direct government lifeline would help, but does argue that MAG’s work `meets both Britain’s political interests and humanitarian ones’. After all, the sooner life can return to normal here, the sooner may end the discontent that saw Isil welcomed by some Iraqis in the first place.
On a ridge at Bashiqa, a cup of sugary tea at Sheikh Moussa Zakaria’s olive farm offers a glimpse of how pleasant that normality can be. The veranda of his villa overlooks his groves of olives, for which Bashiqa is famed throughout the Middle East. Were it not for air-strike plumes on the horizon, we could be in Tuscany.
It wasn’t always like this. Moussa stayed here during Isil’s reign to look after his crops, only for its secret police to arrest him. He was accused of allowing people fleeing Isil to escape across his farmland. After six weeks of torturing him, they released him, but planted mines next to his land to make any other escapees think twice. `One mine killed three members of a family who were fleeing Mosul,’ he says. `Isil refused to even let us bury them, so the dogs ate their bodies.’
With that, he pours more tea, as yet another coalition air strike rattles the windows. Commanders claim it is only a matter of months now before Isil is driven from Mosul altogether. But it may take many years and many more deaths before the soil here once again holds nothing more dangerous than olives. To donate, visit maginternational.org/urgent
`My son had been dancing with his sister, then he went out with the sheep We heard the explosion and I ran in the direction of the sound’ `The mines buried round the school required much less weight to activate them. The only reason I can think of is to deliberately target pupils’