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What's it Like to Return to a Town Filled with Hidden Explosives?

ISIS is retreating through Iraqi Kurdistan, but they’ve left a trail of destruction in their wake, notably the bombs they planted as they left.

by Presented By Oxfam
20 December 2016, 12:54pm

A multi-part editorial series exploring Untold Stories of Hope from Iraq, presented by Oxfam.

Paid Partner Content – this content was paid for by Oxfam and was created in collaboration with VICE creative services, independently from the VICE editorial staff.

It's been two weeks since 16-year-old Aras was maimed by a bomb. He sits bent over, running his fingers past the hard fragments of shrapnel still lodged in his arm - a constant reminder of both his permanent disfigurement and how lucky he was.
 
The teenager was playing football with two of his friends just five minutes from his house in Jalawla, Iraqi Kurdistan, when they heard rumours of a family of pigeons in an unfinished building nearby. Curious, the trio entered the house. While they didn't spot birds, one friend darted forward to pick up a spray paint can on the stone floor.

Then there was a deafening blast.

"I saw the blood leave my friends," Aras said, shaking as he recalled what happened next. "One had his stomach blown open, the other was missing his leg." The explosion also caused the collapse of a wall, trapping them where they lay, dying.
 
Aras was working as a labourer, but his injuries have put a stop to that. Ringing in his ears prevents him from sleeping. Scarring runs down his face.

All photos by Sam Tarling

ISIS are retreating through Iraqi Kurdistan, forced back since the Mosul offensive began in October this year, but they've left a trail of destruction in their wake: gutted houses and shops, craters in roads, and a pervading anxiety that they could be back. Perhaps ISIS' most dangerous legacy, though, is the bombs they've planted throughout communities as they have left.

 "Mines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) destroy lives and inflict terror long after a conflict has ended," said Andres Gonzalez, Oxfam's country director in Iraq. "They prevent civilians from reaching safety and humanitarian agencies like Oxfam from supporting desperate people in areas that have recently been recaptured from ISIS."
 
People who have returned to or remained in these areas live in constant fear of their children stepping on a mine or entering a building that has been booby-trapped, Gonzalez added. "Demining efforts need to step up several gears so that civilians can escape the fighting, get the humanitarian support they need and get on with their lives."

As well as lobbying governments and the UN to speed up the clearance of mines and unexploded ordnance, Oxfam is helping communities by providing vital aid, including clean water and grants so people can rebuild their businesses.

"We found many, many bombs inside the houses," said Sheikh Ali Byati, a commander from al-Hashd al-Shaabi who leads 1,500 men. He's one of those involved in the often amateur efforts to collect IEDs. He showed us around a storage facility in the town of Abbas, about 25km from Mosul, where at least 12 people have been killed by IEDs since it was recaptured from ISIS on November 11. Another 15 fighters from his battalion were killed by another single explosion.

Driving through Abbas, the damage caused by the Islamist militant group was evident. Burned out cars lay by the roadside. Timid-looking women peered out of houses as we passed.

The next day we met Byati again at Namaniyah, his hometown which doubles as a command centre. In a wood-panelled room with glittery green couches he was watching reports from the Mosul offensive on a small, discoloured TV. "You want to see some bombs?" he asked. Laid in unprotected rows on the ground outside were 12 IEDs, all discovered on the nearby riverbank within the last 24 hours. "People just used their eyes" to find them, he said, alluding to the lack of sophisticated demining equipment.

 
Half an hour later a pick-up truck arrived at the centre with five more. Several uniformed locals took them out, lining them up beside the others. Young boys ran over to look.
 
It's a strange time for Byati. It's been 25 days since he managed to return to his home, a large compound which was trashed by ISIS who took the electrics out of the walls, stealing lights and even the air conditioning before they left.

While the IEDs are stopping civilians from returning home, they're also slowing down to reconstruct and rebuild lives.

In Qayyarah, bombs placed around the oil wells set alight by ISIS make it even more difficult for firefighters to put out the apocalyptic-looking flames, though the fumes have already caused deaths.

In the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, the prospect of hidden IEDs have halted efforts to figure out what can be done to reconstruct the decimated ruins - though demining teams from Baghdad are expected to get to work on the area shortly.

Oxfam is helping repair the al Salamiyah water plant on the east bank of the Tigris river, which supplies water to villages around Nimrud. When completed it will provide clean running water to more than 60,000 people. 

Despite the challenges, hope does still shine through. In Jalawla, recaptured from ISIS in late 2014, the bombs have almost completely been cleared, and life is returning. Many of the previous population of 80,000 have made their way home. Children run along the streets, market traders tout their wares, and old men chatter outside tea shops, relieved at regaining something of their old lives and community.

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