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.
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.
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.