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Improvised Mines Kill, Injure Hundreds in Manbij, Northern Syria

In the city of Manbij, Human Rights Watch has documented the deaths of 69 civilians, including 19 children, killed by victim-activated, homemade explosives, which are banned under international law.

Written by Human Rights Watch Published on Read time Approx. 11 minutes
A family member stands next to the graves of three children who were killed when an explosive device planted by ISIS in a school in Manbij detonated on September 27. Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

BEIRUT – Homemade landmines have killed and injured hundreds of civilians, including dozens of children, in Manbij, a city in northern Syria. The antipersonnel mines, often called improvised explosive devices, were planted by the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which until recently controlled the city. Most of the mines appeared to be victim-activated and therefore banned under international law.

During a five-day investigation in the city from October 4 to 9, Human Rights Watch collected the names of 69 civilians, including 19 children, killed by improvised mines in schools, homes and on roads during and after the fighting over control for the city. The total is most likely much higher because Human Rights Watch was not able to collect information from all neighborhoods and villages. Hospital staff said that they had treated hundreds of people injured by improvised mines.

ISIS mined virtually everything including, quite literally, the kitchen sink before they left,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director. “These explosive devices have already killed and injured hundreds of civilians, but these numbers will increase even further as more people return to their homes.”

Survivors of mines and their families told Human Rights Watch that civilians returning to their homes after the fighting had been injured or killed by explosive devices placed in doorways and windows, under mattresses and piles of shoes, in refrigerators and bags of clothes, and in television sets and kitchen-sink taps.

Improvised mines, other types of explosive devices and remnants of war pose a significant threat to civilians and hinder recovery in other places that were under ISIS control, such as Kobane in Syria, and Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq. ISIS-planted improvised explosive devices will pose a major threat to civilians also in places where battles are impending to retake territory from ISIS, such as in al-Bab in Syria and Hawija and Mosul in Iraq.

Zakia Hassan said that her son, Ibrahim Hammud, 35, detonated an explosive device when he stepped on a mattress as he returned to his house on August 12, the day the fighting for Manbij ended. ISIS had forced him to leave his house to use it as a sniper position. “It killed him instantly,” she said. When a team from the local police came to inspect the house a few days later, they found a second improvised mine under a pile of shoes at the entrance to the house.

ISIS also mined schools and hospitals, local residents and deminers said. On September 27, three boys between ages 10 and 13 were killed by an explosive device left in a classroom in the Seif al-Dawla primary school in Manbij. The boys usually played football in the school’s playground, their family members said, but had apparently ventured into the closed school when they found the main door unlocked.

When Human Rights Watch visited on October 5, writing on the wall of the main hospital in Manbij warned about the presence of mines.

ISIS also planted improvised mines on roads, bridges and in fields, which injured and killed civilians trying to flee from ISIS during the fighting. Adnan Ahmed Shawakh, 12, said that a girl running in front of him set off a mine as they were fleeing with others toward a Syrian Democratic Forces position in early August. The explosion broke his leg. “I flew in the sky before I hit the ground,” Adnan said. “There were dust and rocks flying everywhere. I just heard a ringing in my ears and I saw dead people strewn on the ground.”

Nearly all the incidents Human Rights Watch have documented appear to have been caused by victim-activated improvised explosive devices, rather than by explosives detonated by a vehicle or by remote control. Victim-activated devices that explode due to the presence, proximity or contact of a person fall under the definition of an antipersonnel landmine and are banned by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits any use of antipersonnel landmines under any circumstance. Even if labeled as improvised explosive devices or booby traps, such mines are prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty, which Syria has not joined. Iraq and Turkey are states party to the widely ratified treaty.

All parties to the conflict in Syria should respect the ban, Human Rights Watch said.

Military and civilian authorities as well as international organizations should raise awareness among those returning to territory formerly controlled by ISIS about the threat of improvised mines and develop capacity to rapidly clear homes and residential areas of mines and remnants of war to facilitate the return of the civilian population.

Countries bordering Syria should facilitate access for demining organizations and for humanitarian assistance to survivors, Human Rights Watch said.

On May 31, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish, Arab and other forces supported by the United States government, began an offensive to retake Manbij from ISIS, which had fully controlled the city since January 2014. No other armed groups had been present where improvised explosive devices killed and injured civilians. The coalition declared the city under its control on August 12.

Many people Human Rights Watch interviewed said they didn’t know about the threat of improvised explosive devices until they began exploding in their neighborhoods.

Military officials said the coalition cleared main roads during and soon after the fighting. Since then, a team of 20 deminers from the local police, trained and supported by American forces, has systematically cleared public buildings, such as schools and hospitals. It is also clearing private homes where local residents report finding explosive devices, but sometimes only after one has exploded.

One international humanitarian organization has run risk-awareness programs in some schools in Manbij. Humanitarian organizations said that a commercial company is planning clearing activities in Manbij, but that it had not started.

“Limited clearance capacity means that sometimes a house will be cleared only after explosive devices have been detonated,” Solvang said. “That will be too late for many civilians.”

Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to bring about the Mine Ban Treaty and for its contributions to a new international diplomacy based on humanitarian imperatives.

Casualty Numbers and Injuries

A member of the Manbij city council told Human Rights Watch that it has formed a committee to collect information on how many people were killed and injured in Manbij, including by explosive devices, but that the committee had yet to start working. Neither police nor military authorities had numbers for civilians killed and injured by explosive devices.

During five days in Manbij, Human Rights Watch researchers collected information from hospitals, survivors and their families and neighbors, and compiled a list of 69 civilians killed, including 19 children. At least 48 were killed as they returned home after fighting ended. The actual number of deaths is probably significantly higher. Due to time constraints, Human Rights Watch was not able to collect information from all neighborhoods in Manbij. Time constraints and security concerns also prevented Human Rights Watch from visiting villages outside Manbij.

Hospital staff also provided Human Rights Watch with information about the number of wounded. Staff at the Hikmeh hospital in Manbij said that they received an average of six casualties from explosions each day in the first few weeks after fighting ended, on average two of whom died from the injuries.

Dr. Rami Balush, head doctor at Tishreen Hospital, provided a similar number: “When the city was first liberated from ISIS, we received around 35 cases in the first week because people were so eager to go back to their houses and didn’t know there were mines in them.”

The hospital had not registered patients between August 12 and 16, he said, because it was overwhelmed with an influx of patients. Between August 16 and October 5, the hospital had registered 67 patients injured from explosive devices during that period, six of whom died. The hospital did not register patients who died unless their names were known.

Numbers decreased when people realized that their houses could be mined and they should be careful, Dr. Balush said. In early October, when he spoke to Human Rights Watch, he said there was still a steady stream of patients suffering injuries from explosive devices. During the five days Human Rights Watch visited Manbij, six civilians were brought to Tishreen and Hikmeh hospitals with injuries from explosive devices, one of whom died.

Staff at Manbij hospitals said they received few casualties from explosive devices before August 12, when the fighting ended. Most of those injured by explosive devices in the period of fighting detonated them as they were trying to flee the ISIS-controlled territory. Syrian Democratic Forces or the Kurdish Red Crescent, also known as Heyva Sur, rescued many of these victims and sent them to hospitals in Kobane or Qamishli for treatment.

Dr. Yaser Bali, head of the Amel hospital in Kobane, said that his hospital received 840 injured people from Manbij in July and August. He estimated that 80 percent of the injuries were from improvised explosive devices.

Hospital staff said that the injuries caused by mine explosions often included broken limbs.

“Many times their entire leg was blown off and the bone was visible,” a doctor at the Hikmeh hospital told Human Rights Watch. “Many of the cases that came in to the hospital required amputations of the legs or arms.”

Hogir Bali, assistant surgeon at Kobane’s Amel hospital, estimated that he had amputated 15 legs and 11-12 arms of patients injured by explosive devices in Manbij.

“We were so overwhelmed with patients that we didn’t even have time to change our sanitized clothing from one patient to the next,” he said. “Sometimes we would run out and have to operate in our regular clothes.”

Incidents at Homes and Schools

The accounts below are based on information Human Rights Watch received from survivors, their relatives and neighbors. When nobody saw the explosion, those interviewed deduced the trigger of the explosion from the position of the victim’s body and the damage.

Doctors at the Hikmeh hospital in Manbij said that an explosive device detonated in the home of the Dada family in the Dwar al-Kitab (دوار الكتاب) neighborhood in Manbij on October 7, injuring Soad, 30, in the head, her son Hamza, 9, in the stomach and chest, and breaking a leg and severing the arm of her son Mohamed, 4. The family told the doctors that the device detonated when they tried to turn on the television set. All three were sent to Turkey for further treatment.

Khalaf al-Kasba, 60, said that an explosive device detonated as he walked into a room in his house in the village of Manshed al-Tawaheen on October 6. The explosion badly bruised his face, lodged fragments in his chest and broke his leg. A fragment also lodged in his wife’s chest. Human Rights Watch interviewed him and his wife in the Tishreen hospital the day after the incident. Al-Kasba said that it looked like two other explosive devices had exploded in his home before he returned.

Relatives and neighbors who had accompanied al-Kasba to the hospital provided Human Rights Watch with the names of nine other people in their village who had died from explosive devices.

Abdelmalek Ashqar, 15, and his father said that an explosive device injured Abdelmalek in his family’s store when he picked up some pillows on September 31. The explosion broke his ankle and lodged fragments in his chest.

Family members and neighbors said that an explosive device laid in the Seif al-Dawla primary school killed Mustafa Ali Horan, 13; Hassan Othman Nassan, 10; and Emad Ali al-Hamad, 11, on September 27. They said that the boys usually played football in the school’s playground, but had apparently ventured into the school when they found the main door unlocked. Neighbors who heard the explosion rushed to the school to find the boys’ bodies in a classroom.

A relative said that an explosive device killed Mohammed al-Ali Atiia, 47, when he opened the door to his house in the Hazawneh neighborhood in late August. The explosion also killed his mother, Hasna Ali Hummade, 70.

Neighbors said that an explosive device killed Amina Kul Hassan, 40, and her mother, Mariam Kul Hassan, 60, as they walked toward their house and tripped what appeared to be a fishing line in the Hazawneh neighborhood on August 23.

Khaled Abdi said that an explosive device killed his daughter Sabreen Abdi, 18, as she walked near the wall of her house, returning home after fighting had ended, on August 18. The explosion also injured Bushra Ali, 13, a relative, he said.

A relative said that an explosive device killed Umran Mohamed al-Hussein, 13, when he opened the door to his family’s home in the Hazawneh neighborhood on August 15, after returning for the first time since ISIS left the city.

Neighbors said that an explosive device killed Fadel al-A’raj, 12, when he opened the door to his home on Street 30 in the Hazawneh neighborhood in Manbij on August 13. Neighbors said that the explosion blew his legs off and set his body on fire. They put the fire out with water, but al-A’raj died. The explosion also injured his brother, Mohamed, 8.

A neighbor said that an explosive device killed Hussein Mohamed Hureish, 35, and four others when he opened a refrigerator door in a house in the Hazawneh neighborhood in Manbij on August 12. The house owners had hired Hureish, a former military deminer, to clear the house of explosive devices.

A neighbor said that an explosive device killed Musa al-Musa, 36, when he tried to turn on the main electrical switch of his house in the Hazawneh neighborhood on August 12, after he returned for the first time since ISIS left the city. His brother Abdel Musa al-Musa, 38, died after he detonated another explosive device when he moved a rug in the same house a few days later.

Abed al-Haroun, 48, said an explosive device killed his nephew, Yusuf Disho, 40, as he stepped on a tile in his living room in his Rabta street home in Manbij on August 10. He also said an explosive device killed Ibrahim Disho when he opened the door to his home on approximately August 15. Ziad al-Shaer, 56, died in the same incident.

Aqil Hammud, 12, and several members of his family said that a device exploded when he and four cousins crossed the bridge leading to al-Manghuba by foot on their way to a local swimming pool on June 24. The four cousins – Mohammed, 14; Abdelrahman, 14; Mohammed Ali, 14; and Hamid, 13 – all died. Aqil was injured. Human Rights Watch observed numerous scars on Aqil’s left leg, right shoulder and arm, and the right side of his head. Wounds near his right ear still oozed.

Noor Hadid, 14, said that explosive devices had killed six members of her family. Her husband, Abdelrazak Ahmed al-Hamwi, 23, and uncle, Ahmed al-Hamwi, 50, died when a mine exploded as they rode a motorcycle in the Hazawneh neighborhood. Her mother-in-law, Amina al-Zeleq, 45, detonated an explosive device when she opened the tap in her kitchen sink, killing her and her sister-in-law, Khadija al-Hamwi, 25. Two cousins, Ammar al-Hamwi, 25, and Radwan al-Hamwi, 13, were searching for mines in front of their house when one exploded, killing them both.

Incidents as People Tried to Flee

Neighbors said that they witnessed a mine explosion that injured Mohamed Abdelrazak Mohamed, 30, in the Hazawneh neighborhood of Manbij, as he fled ISIS on August 5.

Taha Hammodi, 52, said that his sons Mustafa, 14, and Jasya, 13, and his brother Abdel Hamid, 39, were killed when a device exploded in the Hazawneh neighborhood as they hit a trip wire on a narrow street, fleeing ISIS on foot on August 5. Hammodi showed Human Rights Watch scars from fragment injuries on his left arm from the explosion.

Muna al-Bash, 10, and her mother said that fragments from a mine explosion injured Muna’s arm when they were trying to flee in early August. She required an operation because of internal bleeding.

Claudia Florina Taljbini, a Romanian who has lived in Manbij for 20 years, said that she detonated a mine when she stepped on a black plastic bag on Serab street in Manbij as she was fleeing ISIS-controlled territory on July 5:

“Four explosions went, ‘Boom, boom, boom.’ I fell to the ground with a number of children and other people. I couldn’t feel my arm or leg, and there was blood spurting profusely from my leg. I lay there for four hours waiting for someone to rescue me.”

The Syrian Democratic Forces eventually found her and drove her to Kobane for treatment. Doctors amputated her right leg below the knee, and she has reduced mobility in the fingers of her left hand.

This article was originally published by Human Rights Watch and is reprinted here with permission.

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