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Desperate to come home, Syrians brave IS mines in Raqa

Features | 2018-02-16 12:27:00
Desperate to come home, Syrians brave IS mines in Raqa

RAQA (AFP) - Mohammed Kuraji returned to Syria's Raqa to prepare a homecoming but ended up organising a funeral. Stepping into his home, an unexploded mine detonated and killed his elderly father.

"It was terrifying. The blast was so strong that I couldn't hear," said the 26-year-old, who was also wounded in the incident two months ago.

The Islamic State group was ousted from its de facto Syrian capital Raqa in October, but it left mines scattered across the ravaged city.

Residents are desperate to return home, but they are being maimed and killed by unexploded -- and sometimes insidiously hidden -- ordnance.

Under piles of rubble, behind old refrigerator doors, in blown-out buildings, IS has sown death everywhere.

The explosives in Kuraji's home were triggered when his father leaned down to pick up a copy of the Koran.

"I was thrown back into the neighbour's house and a wall collapsed onto my father," said Kuraji, who has two young children.

He spoke to AFP from under a mountain of blankets, pulling back the covers to reveal his legs, set in place by splints and screws in his shins.

- Mine hunting -

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces ousted IS from Raqa in October, then handed the city over to the Raqa Civil Council.

But Raqa natives are complaining that demining firms hired by the RCC are taking too long, and have taken matters into their own hands.

Young men are charging up to $100 to search and clear homes of mines -- a small fortune for war-weary Syrians.

"It's becoming a lucrative business. The officials are ignoring it, and we don't have the means," said resident Hamed Saleh, 28.

A large part of his home in Raqa is inaccessible because of mines.

"At any moment, even if a cat is just passing by, a bomb could go off. It's terrifying," said Saleh.

According to Human Rights Watch, local officials were receiving about 10 requests for house inspections for a single neighbourhood, every day.

But they were only able to clear about 10 cases per week across the entire city, the New York-based rights group said this week.

It documented at least 491 people, including 157 children, wounded in mine blasts, many of whom died.

Goh Mayama of the aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said his clinic receives an average of six mine blast casualties a day on average in Raqa, about a quarter of whom die.

- 'A view to kill' -

Demining operations in Raqa have been supported by the US-led coalition that backed the SDF's drive against IS.

In December, the SDF said it had demined half the city.

"The hospitals, public institutions, schools, power stations and bakeries are all demined," said SDF official Lokman Khalil.

"Raqa's a big city. There's a huge number of mines and it'll take time," he told AFP.

He said the SDF had tried to keep civilians away, but Raqa natives eager to leave displacement camps and come home had ramped up the pressure.

Now, the city's main streets have been cleared for traffic, though mounds of debris still line the sidewalks.

Outside one damaged building, a group of children in oversized sweaters rummage through a pile of twisted metal and corrugated iron.

Men with picks and shovels poke through the ruins, emerging occasionally with an unexploded mine.

"We're paying people out of our own pockets to clear our streets and houses," said Abu Mohammed, a resident in his forties.

The four-storey apartment building he owns has been completely destroyed, but he cannot begin rebuilding because of mines inside.

"I have three kids. I keep them locked at home so that mines don't go off as they walk in the streets," he said.

According to the United Nations, some 60,000 people have returned to Raqa despite warnings of the danger.

"The number of unexploded ordnance in Raqa is something that we have never seen before. It's extreme," said Panos Moumtzis, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

Between 50 and 70 people were being wounded or killed every week because of mines in the city.

"Just to give you a point of comparison, it's the number that takes place in Afghanistan in a year," Moumtzis said.

"It's planted with a view to kill."

by Delil Souleiman
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