Syria's volunteer sappers forced to improvise mine-clearing tactics
Smoke rises above a controlled land mine, which was detonated by Russian experts, in the ancient town of Palmyra in the central Homs province, Syria on Thursday, April 14, 2016. (AP / Hassan Ammar)
Philip Issa, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, May 4, 2016 3:09AM EDT
BEIRUT - Volunteers in opposition-held areas of Syria are forced to improvise as they carry out one of the world's most dangerous tasks: dismantling cluster munitions, landmines and explosive booby-traps as they work to make battle-torn areas safe for civilians to return.
The result has been tragic.
Booby-traps laid by the Islamic State group in the Kurdish-held town of Kobani, in northern Syria, have killed more than 20 volunteer sappers in 15 months, according to a senior regional official.
"They knew they were going to be martyred when they joined," said Ojalan Hisso, the deputy head of the Defence Administration for the Kobani Canton.
The sappers were all regular fighters in the main Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, who volunteered to take a munitions-clearance course based on Internet videos and shared experience. But the death toll in the Kobani area was so high that the campaign there has been suspended, Hisso said.
Still, the amateur demining effort continues in other parts of Syria, often with minimal training and no specialized equipment. Members of the Civil Defence demining teams in Aleppo province have developed their own methods, including burning explosives in primitive pits and detonating unexploded cluster munitions by shooting at them.
"Most of the time, we are exploding them in batches," said Ibrahem Alhaj of the Aleppo Civil Defence team. "Or we bury them deep underground, away from non-residential areas."
An estimated 5.1 million Syrians live in what the UN's demining co-ordination body, UNMAS, calls "contaminated" areas, where unexploded ordnance poses a threat to life and limb. More than two million of them are children.
Defusing or otherwise neutralizing unexploded ordnance is a perilous task for even the best-trained technicians, to say nothing of volunteers.
The weapons have been used extensively by the Syrian government, the Russian Air Force, and the Islamic State group in civilian areas throughout much of the war, according to evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch and other watchdog agencies.
The Syrian government has been able to rely on Russian military technicians to secure areas under their control, such as the ancient city of Palmyra, which pro-government forces retook from IS in March. Clips broadcast from Palmyra on Russian media showed the technicians, clad in specialized protective gear, moving methodically across minefields and booby-trapped neighbourhoods, sweeping the ground with metal detectors and explosives-sniffing dogs.
In contrast, hours-long amateur footage circulating on social media shows YPG volunteers in opposition-held areas prodding the ground with sticks, digging up bomblets with spades, and defusing them by hand.
"It's ridiculously dangerous," said James Le Mesurier, the founder of Mayday Rescue, an Istanbul-based NGO that trains rescue workers in conflict environments. "They were doing it because they hadn't received training and equipment, and they didn't know any better."
Ordnance clearance usually begins in earnest after the end of a conflict, Le Mesurier said, when it is safe enough for international teams to work in the environment.
But the scale of the munitions threat in Syria, paired with the difficulty of sending teams into the indiscriminate conflict, has meant that locals are taking matters into their own hands.
A video from the central province of Hama shows a man in civilian clothes and sandals layering some two dozen bomblets inside a deep pit in a field. He then places two tires and a sponge doused in oil on top of them - fuel for a fire he'll light to detonate the munitions.
"This is the only way to finish with cluster bombs," he solemnly explains.
He lights a fuse at the edge of the pit, then sprints off screen.
It takes a few minutes, but a fire eventually catches and deep red flames are seen rising out of the pit. Then a series of massive explosions blast dirt several metres into the air, jarring the cameraman who apparently thought he was standing a safe distance away.
"God is great," he exclaims, as several more blasts follow meters away from where the sapper had been working - possibly undiscovered munitions set off by the force of the first blast.
In another clip, a man shows how to defuse a spherical cluster munition using a clamp and some household tools. After removing the detonator, he explains the bomb's mechanisms and points to the explosives. Other clips show how to safely harvest those explosives for use by weapons-starved rebel militias.
These improvisational methods, while often effective, have led to many casualties.
"Practically everyone who worked on this team and was martyred knew they were on the path to martyrdom," said Kobani-based activist Mustafa Bali of the sappers who died in his town. "But they feel compelled to work because there are people in camps who need to return ... There was no other choice."
Still, with experience and innovation, the volunteers are gradually developing safer methods.
Aleppo's Civil Defence teams, known as the White Helmets, are training civilians in opposition areas how to spot munitions and prevent children from playing with them. They mark off areas immediately after a cluster munitions strike to minimize post-strike casualties.
Mayday Rescue, which shepherded the White Helmets into existence in 2013, has trained 25 Civil Defence volunteers in Idlib and Hama provinces on an innovative method to "melt" away explosives in the ground without detonating them, using thermite flares.
"None of these guys that we're training ... used to be explosives engineers," said Le Mesurier. "These are ordinary guys in the streets."
The volunteers were trained to train others, in the hope that the lessons will filter through to other Civil Defence teams in opposition areas.
But if the experience of other post-conflict societies is any indication, it will take decades to rid Syria of its unexploded munitions.
"The problem is vast, and it's going to take multiple generations to solve it," said Le Mesurier.