This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.
“They say this job is dangerous, and that’s true – it’s 1,000 percent dangerous,” explained Hoda Khaled, 33, from the city of Basra in southeastern Iraq.
Together with other 13 other women, Khaled is currently being trained to remove landmines and unexploded ordinance from the area. “We, the people of Iraq, have been through far more difficult circumstances,” Khaled said. “For years, we’ve been witnessing explosions right in front of our eyes, in the markets, in the streets. Our jobs are only as dangerous as our lives.”
According to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), Iraq is one of the nations most contaminated by munitions. Decades of conflict in the country have left behind approximately 2.7 billion square metres of land contaminated by mines and other explosives, equivalent to an area about three-and-a-half times the size of New York City. These mines and unexploded bombs present a huge danger to the lives of civilians in the area, especially children.
More than a third of the affected area is located near the city of Basra, according to Nibras Fakher Al-Tamimi from the Directorate of Mine Action, an Iraqi government body overseeing demining efforts in the country. Less than 100 kilometres from the Persian Gulf, and sandwiched between Kuwait and Iran, the Governorate of Basra has been of great strategic importance in the wars that Iraq has been involved in over the last half century, and is sown with explosives as a result.
Al-Tamimi says that during the Iraq-Iran war – which ran from 1980 to 1988 – millions of mines were laid in the borderlands between the two countries. The region was also targeted during the Gulf War in 1991 – when Iraq invaded Kuwait and was pushed back by a US-led international coalition – as well as in the Iraq War, which started in 2003. “During those last two conflicts, millions of cluster bombs were dropped onto the city, especially on the western districts,” Al-Tamimi said. “These bombs are still killing innocent people – we record dozens of accidents annually.”
To accelerate the mine and ordinance clearance process in the area, the private demining company Al Bayrak has started training women. The company is not currently hiring, but their free 21-day course will provide participants with a certificate they can use to apply for permanent positions with the government or other NGOs. This is the first time such an initiative has been undertaken in Iraq’s south, though UNMAS has already created an all-female demining team in Mosul, in northern Iraq, the second-largest city in the country and a former ISIS stronghold.
“Both the trainees and the company have faced many challenges. Women’s work is traditionally limited in southern Iraq, especially when it comes to these kinds of jobs,” said Walid Saadoun, the executive manager of Al Bayrak, who is responsible for the programme. “I believe we have succeeded in breaking this taboo. The trainees’ persistence encouraged us to continuously support them and stand by them.”
Khaled said her family disagreed with her decision to undergo the training. “Part of their rejection has to do with traditions, but another part is just fear,” she said. “Talking about mines and explosives scares everyone. I overheard family members saying they are afraid I might lose a body part or become deformed if something goes off.”
Khaled confessed that she was scared herself at the start of the training, but that her fears faded as she learned more about the job. “I don’t believe a specific job is only for men or for women – there should be equality in all fields,” Khaled said. “The reason why I wanted to join the programme is to clear my city from mines and explosives. They have been contaminating it for more than 40 years now.”
During the training sessions, participants have to wear body armour, helmets and face masks. Hend Hussein, a 32-year-old philosophy graduate, said her family is also very concerned for her safety, but that she had their full support.
“My family and friends always tell me they are proud of me, but some men think women can’t make it in this field,” Hussein said. “I don’t know if this [stems from] traditions, or from a fear that we might prove ourselves successful. I’m sure some men are afraid to do this job while Iraqi women have proven themselves, and have challenged these stereotypes. All I care about is serving my country, Iraq, in times where the country needs the support of its people, both men and women.”
In 2010, Iraq’s former minister of the environment, Narmin Othman, estimated that up to 55 million cluster bombs were dropped on the country between 1991 and 2003, 40 percent of which failed to explode. The high rate of failure to detonate on impact makes cluster bombs extremely dangerous for civilians not only during times of war, but for decades to come.
This is one of the reasons why cluster bombs were banned in 2008 by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty adopted by 123 countries. But the US never joined the convention, nor has it joined the 164 countries that are part of the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use and production of anti-personnel mines. During the first Gulf war alone, the US laid 120,000 landmines in Iraq and Kuwait.
Despite the ongoing demining process, a 2021 ReliefWeb report estimates that about 8.5 million Iraqis are still vulnerable to landmines and other explosives. Besides Mosul, where there are up to 8 million tons of explosives that need to be cleared, the Anbar governorate has also become a dangerous resting place for the remnants of the war against ISIS. About 150,000 square metres of its territory remain contaminated, mostly around the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
After the end of the training course, Khaled and Hussein both hope to find other opportunities in this field, whether in the governmental or private sector. Unemployment is currently high in Iraq, especially for women. A spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, Abdul Zahra Al-Hindawi, said over the phone that 10.9 percent of Iraqi men and 31 percent of Iraqi women are unemployed. In other words, women in Iraq are three times more likely to be jobless.
"I don’t care about how dangerous this job is. All I hope is that I’ll be able to find a permanent position after I finish the training,” Khaled said. “I hope to apply everything I’ve learned to remove the largest amount of mines I can, and to protect innocent people."