Many parts of Syria are literally booby-trapped.
During its retreat from its de facto capital of Raqqa in October and from other areas, the so-called Islamic State filled houses, buildings and roads with homemade explosives. Meanwhile, the Syrian government and Russian-backed forces dropped thousands upon thousands of explosives across the country during aerial bombardments, and unexploded cluster bombs and other ordnance now litter villages and towns. These explosive remnants of war (ERW) continue to kill and injure civilians in many areas every day.
As the larger conflict dies down somewhat, humanitarian groups are shifting their focus to land-mine clearing and risk education about unexploded ordnance. At the forefront of many of these efforts are Syrian women, who are well-placed to spread the warnings in family, cultural and educational settings.
Widespread Use of ERW
Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that ISIS placed the vast majority of improvised explosive devices during their retreats to “continue their fight remotely.” According to Kayyali, most of the ERW reports coming out of Syria, particularly those involving rigged land mines, are linked to ISIS because of “how creative” the group has been. In former ISIS-controlled territories, civilians have reported that the doorways to their homes, their beds, their shoes and even their children’s toys have been rigged with explosive devices. However, HRW has also recorded lesser but significant ERW use by all warring groups in Syria. “Certainly the Syrian government is using them,” Kayyali said.
Kayyali noted that ERW have also been left behind by Syrian and Russian militaries and non-state armed groups, but these are often cluster munitions that fell to the ground without exploding during aerial bombardments.
“We received three unconfirmed reports that link the Syrian government to the.use of land mines in [the city of] Uqayribat,” Kayyali said, adding that HRW has also “seen the use of land mines in besieged areas to keep civilians from fleeing into northern Syria.”
“We are finding bits of everything from everyone. It changes village by village [based on] who has been fighting there, but overall the ERW are from everyone,” Alannah Ellis, program support officer for the HALO Trust’s Syria program said.
ERW mostly kill civilians. For the HALO Trust, the danger that ERW poses to children is a priority for their team members in Syria. Unexploded ammunition often resemble the types of balls and tiny marbles that children play with. These deadly weapons become attractive playthings.
In early October, the HALO Trust dispatched risk educators to schools in the northwestern province of Idlib to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of interacting with ERW. At the end of the lesson, two small schoolchildren approached HALO’s workers, unzipped their backpacks and emptied the contents onto a desk. “Their backpacks were full of cluster ammunition,” said Ellis. “They had just been taught not to pick up ERW and they had backpacks full of them.”
Kayyali recounted a similar story from Idlib, where a young child was spotted walking down the street with his arms full of ERW. In both cases, explosives experts were able to intervene in time, but Ellis said that stories like these illustrate the importance of clearance operations and risk education to teach civilians how to safely navigate their communities when ERW abound.
The Role of Women
The HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine-clearance organization, is currently working in northern and southern Syria to conduct a contamination impact survey, victim data collection and risk education to civilians. The organization is hopeful that its survey work will give humanitarian organizations an in-depth understanding of the extent of ERW in Syria so that plans for clearance operations and victim rehabilitation can begin.
In order to successfully operate within Syria, HALO has hired Syrian women to work on their risk education and surveying teams. The women, who make up 20 percent of HALO’s team members in Syria, educate locals on how to spot different types of ERW and how to act safely when navigating areas heavy in unexploded ammunition. They also visit local communities to determine how much of the land is contaminated with ERW and to meet with victims to record data on accident occurrence and provide rehabilitation assistance.
The HALO Trust has a history of employing women in its clearance operations in other countries, even in countries such as Syria, where women can be discouraged through social norms from working outside of the home. HALO sought out women in Syria because, as locals, they know the landscape of their local towns; empowering women, through employment, is also a key priority for the organization.
“We make sure that women are valued stakeholders in what happens in the countries we work in, so we are making a concerted effort to recruit women [in Syria and around the world],” said Louise Vaughan, head of media at the HALO Trust.
Alannah Ellis emphasized the importance of having women involved in risk education and survey taking in Syria because of the social restrictions placed on many women within the country. “Without women on our teams, we would be unable to reach half of the population in Syria, which means that without employing women we would not be able to reach civilian women to teach them about victim analysis and risk education.”
Women have volunteered, too, for the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, where one of their primary roles is to educate children on ERW and how to avoid them. According to Majd Khalaf of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defense has a total of five clearance teams working in northern and southern Syria. The clearance teams, known as UXO teams, are currently staffed with all-male volunteers.
“When we originally did the training in Syria we only had male volunteers; now it is too dangerous to bring the trainer back into Syria to train women, but when we can we will,” said Khalaf.
Recruiting women to work in clearance operations has not been without its challenges in Syria. “There have been recruiting challenges, especially for the survey element because it is considered a male-dominated job, and there is a perception that it is a bit dangerous because they are going around and viewing [ERW] sites,” said Ellis. The HALO Trust has got around this social perception by working with local partner organizations such as Shafak, a humanitarian organization that was developed at the start of the Syrian crisis. Shafak has had a trusted presence in local communities for years because of the aid it provides for civilians. “Shafak has been in the areas that we work for a long time, so people [trust them] and our teams have been able to grow from there,” Ellis said.
The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) works in over 40 countries to remove unexploded land mines. MAG is currently working in Syria to remove ERW but declined to speak on the record about the exact nature of its work there. “There are a lot of complexities on the ground, [including] patchwork quilts of alliances and interested parties … we keep a low profile [for] the best interests for everyone,” said Sean Sutton, international communications manager for MAG. Sutton did confirm that employing women to work in demining operations in the Middle East is a top priority for MAG.
Women comprise 20 percent of MAG’s technical demining teams in Lebanon and Iraq. This has provided the women with valuable wages to provide for themselves and their families and has changed the way that women are viewed within their communities. “When we first employed women in Lebanon, only a few women decided that they wanted the job. These women ended up becoming an example to their communities and they showed other women that they could do this work, that this work was not just men’s work … the women are empowered [through the work] and they speak strongly about that,” said Sutton.
The HALO Trust is currently training women in clearance operations in the south of Syria.
In the north, though, clearance operations have been blocked by cross-border disputes with neighboring countries, making it difficult for humanitarian organizations such as HRW and the HALO Trust to provide aid and conduct clearance operations in border towns.
Kayyali emphasized the bureaucracy challenges on both sides of the border that restrict clearance efforts. To reach Syrian territories that border Turkey, humanitarian experts have to seek approval from Turkish authorities. “This means having approval for the actual person to cross the border as well as separate approval to bring demining equipment past the border. You also need approval from Syria as well, and if you are crossing into territory that is not controlled by the Syrian government, you have to get the permission of whoever is in charge of that territory to cross into Syria,” said Kayyali. These challenges are contributing to the continuation of violence in northern towns such as Idlib – where the schoolchildren were seen picking up cluster ammunition.
Experts suggest that ridding Syria of ERW will take up to 30 years to complete. These extraordinary estimates make it clear that even when the conflict is over, the civil war will continue to impact civilians for decades. Clearance should be a priority of the international community, said Kayyali, not only because it decreases civilian deaths, but because without clearance, Syria will not be able to rebuild once the conflict is over. With explosives hidden beneath the rubble, laced underfoot in city roads and lining doorways of buildings and homes, the infrastructure of cities and towns will continue to crumble and it will be too dangerous for reconstruction efforts to begin.
“You cannot rebuild Syria if clearance operations don’t happen,” said Kayyali, “it spells disaster [for Syria].”
This version corrects an earlier version of the story in which HRW’s statement was mistakenly attributed to Halo Trust.