FALLUJAH: The road was dirty, bumpy and winding and the car jolted up and down. Some of the homes on either side were partially damaged, others had been turned into piles of rubble.
The area of destruction increased deeper into Al-Shuhadaa, the eastern district of Fallujah city, the first Iraqi city to fall into the hands of Daesh in Jan. 2017.
The streets seemed deserted, except for a few families who have recently returned to their homes, and the area is littered with booby traps.
The recent visit by Arab News revealed the scale of the challenge faced by Iraq as it embarks on repairing the damage inflicted by the extremists during their short rule over large tracts of the north and west.
On Monday, at least 2,300 international and local companies from 70 countries, will gather in Kuwait for a conference on reconstructing Iraq. The three-day event, organized by Baghdad in coordination with Kuwait and the International Monetary Fund, will launch more than 150 projects and drum up investment from the international community to contribute to the $100 billion that Iraq says it needs to repair all the damage.
But in many areas, before any major rebuilding projects can get underway, residents are facing a deadly and more immediate problem — unexploded bombs left behind by Daesh.
“Anything here may be booby-trapped,” police officer Maj. Yasser Rabah told Arab News as he stood 20 meters from a one-floor house still under construction and partially damaged in Fallujah.
He said the house had been laced with improvised explosive devices, two of which had already exploded. One of the blasts killed two brothers as they stood at the entrance.
“No one can get closer as we know there is still a series of linked unexploded IEDs,” Rabah said.
“They (Daesh) booby-trapped everything. Even the land has been planted with improvised explosive devices.”
Al-Shuhadaa and Al-Nuimaya districts are near the highway that linked Fallujah to Baghdad and were turned into one of the main Daesh front lines.
They were used by the extremists to stop the advance of Iraqi security forces to retake the city and witnessed some of the fiercest battles during the military operations launched in May 2016 that lasted for almost five weeks.
Houses in the area were either bobby-trapped or surrounded by IEDs planted in the dirt. Rusted square steel plates with a diameter of about 25cm, connected by wires, and 90cm-long wooden panels stand out of the dirt on the roadside every two meters.
Ziyad Khalaf, a resident who returned to his home in the area with his family a few months ago, said his wife and sister were killed after they returned when one of these devices detonated.
“They went out to get some firewood to for the oven,” he told Arab News. “My sister pulled on a palm frond and an explosion took place,” Khalaf said, trying to stop his tears. “She (his sister) was blown to pieces while my wife was badly injured. She died at the hospital.”
Some of the devices in the area have been defused by the army but left behind, while others have been disarmed by the rain, but the rest are still live, he said.
Families have returned to their homes in eastern districts of Fallujah despite military maps that show much of the area is still covered with mines.
More than 20 civilians were killed just in Al-Shuhadaa in the past few months, local officials in Fallujah told Arab News.
“We have not allowed any of these families to go back to the area but they sneaked there without our permission,” Essaa Al-Sayer, the mayor of Fallujah, said. “We have no control over them so we cannot prevent them from going back.”
Sayer said the army could not do that much in the “mine-contaminated area” because of lack of experience and because Baghdad’s government does not have enough money to get foreign specialized companies to treat the 300 houses booby trapped in Fallujah. “We are relying on international donors to deal with this (the mines) problem. It’s beyond our abilities.”
Many other cities and towns are still contaminated with improvised explosive devices, such as the old city of Mosul, some neighborhoods in Ramadi, Saqlawiya, Naimiya and Rawa in Anbar, Jarf Al-Sakhr in Babil and Baiji in Salahuddin.
Two-and-a-half-million people are still displaced and some of them are living in camps on the edge of their cities. Those people cannot go back to their homes, mainly because of the IEDs.
UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) said the Iraqi government, the UN, and other national and international stakeholders should prioritized the clearance of “explosive hazards” as an essential first step before any rehabilitation or reconstruction work can be carried out.
“The explosive hazards problem is complex, extensive, and exceeds the capacity of the existing resources to address it,” according to the UNMAS website.
Iraq is seeking $147 million to support operations in removing unexploded bombs in the country in 2018, UNMAS said.
Image: Middle East Monitor
Artile: Arab News