OPINION: Danger does not disappear when the fighting ends

by Aleema Shivji | Humanity & Inclusion
Wednesday, 10 July 2019 17:15 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A shoe is seen among a pile of unexploded ordnance at the positions of the Iraqi forces at the frontline in Old City of West Mosul, Iraq June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Explosive remnants of war prolong the legacy of war even after the end of a conflict

Aleema Shivji is the executive director at Humanity & Inclusion UK. 

Two years since Mosul was retaken by the Iraqi armed forces, huge swathes of land in Mosul as well as many other cities in Iraq are littered with explosive remnants of war. In the aftermath of the conflict with the Islamic State, some 500,000 people are still displaced in camps and the thousands of injured people depend on access to appropriate care. A shocking reminder of the legacy of war, years after the fighting is over.

The level of contamination is unprecedented in Iraq: there are explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices in fields, homes, sometimes even behind refrigerator doors. Demining experts say they’ve never seen contamination of this scale in any other conflict. And, this is added to the areas that were already contaminated during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Explosive remnants of war are weapons that haven’t exploded on impact. These explosive weapons can stay active for months, even years, just waiting for someone, perhaps a small child, to pick them up, before exploding.

In Iraq, people have been living in conflict-affected areas, risking their lives day in day out. Today, two years after the retake of Mosul, that risk hasn’t diminished – it will take decades to rid Mosul of all the explosive remnants of this horrific war. Every day, in Iraq, our teams are meeting families who have had a mother, a father, a child, or a sibling injured by explosive weapons. They are treating the victims of conflict with all the means they have. They are destroying these horrid devices, so no-one else gets injured or dies. Sadly children are the first victims of these horrific weapons. With the innocence of youth, they reach for brightly coloured things they see on the ground or in a bush. If they survive, their life is devastated, changed forever.

The rehabilitation needs in Iraq are huge; two years after the fighting ended, thousands of injured are still awaiting treatment. Our team in the field have been telling us that some patients have been waiting for a prosthesis for more than a year. The needs far outstrip the supply.

One million people fled the fighting in the aftermath of the Battle of Mosul. Today, some 500,000 people are still living in camps for displaced people in Nineveh province and cannot or do not wish to return home as they fear for their safety. The situation in the camps is dire. People only have the bare minimum to drink, eat and survive. People are struggling to imagine a better future, and their trauma is going to haunt them for generations.

The situation in Mosul is just as worrying. More than half of homes have been damaged. Although life has resumed in the eastern half of the city, the western half, where the bulk of the fighting took place, remains heavily contaminated by explosive remnants of war and improvised mines. With the extensive use of explosive weapons, vital infrastructure such as schools and hospitals has been destroyed. Roads and bridges are still impassable. Some 1,500 explosive remnants of war were found in Al-Shifa hospital alone.

Besides killing and causing horrific injuries, explosive weapons spread terror and make people fear for their lives. Everyone needs to be able to identify and protect themselves from these kinds of weapons. It’s a question of survival. As large numbers of people continue returning to highly contaminated areas, there is an urgent need to raise their awareness.

As a humanitarian, I have witnessed the dramatic consequences of the bombing of towns and cities such as Mosul.

In October 2019, a group of states will gather in Vienna for a high-level conference that will lead to an international political declaration to protect civilians in urban warfare. I strongly believe that this historical diplomatic process is the only way to ensure the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons. 90% of the victims of explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians. That’s 90% too many.