Assisting the victims of Syria’s deadly legacy
Eight million people are exposed to landmines and other life-threatening explosive hazards. The EU supports mine risk education across Syria in schools, community centres, and villages.
Seventeen-year-old Mahmoud and his father were driving back from the market in a rural village in southeastern Syria when an improvised explosive device detonated at the roadside. His father died instantly and Mahmoud’s leg was torn off just below his knee.
“I don’t remember anything,” Mahmoud tells me when we meet at an EU-supported rehabilitation centre in northeastern Syria. “I woke up in a hospital with my left leg missing.”
Across the room, filled with weights, exercise bikes and other equipment, a small boy tries to walk with a new artificial leg, his hands gripping rails running along a ramp for support. Outside, dark rain clouds tower over a gloomy concrete building featuring a painted mural of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Mahmoud has undergone physiotherapy for two months and is now learning to walk, climb stairs, and even run on a prosthetic leg.
“I have nerve damage in my right leg as well, so it’s quite hard work,” Mahmoud says. “At the beginning I felt very sad and depressed, but when I saw the others at the clinic making progress, I felt much better. I’m not thinking about the future much, I’m only focusing on how to walk normally again.”
The rehabilitation centre, which helps patients recover and regain mobility, is filled with people with equally harrowing stories: Ahmed, a vegetable vendor, lost his leg in an airstrike which killed more than 50 people, while 20-year-old Mohammed’s leg was blown off as he stepped on a landmine in a rural field.
Facilities like these are relatively rare; after eight years of devastating war, Syria suffers from a dramatic lack of medical equipment and health professionals who can provide adequate medical care. The need for more specialised services, like physical rehabilitation and psychological support, is even more pressing.
Across Syria, an estimated eight million people are exposed to life-threatening explosive hazards, such as landmines and unexploded ordnance — some designed to go off at the lightest touch. They lie buried in the sand, hidden amid urban debris and inside abandoned schools. Children are maimed or killed when they pick up shiny objects or play in booby-trapped buildings. As the violence subsides in parts of Syria and displaced families return to their homes, people fall prey to explosives hidden by retreating fighters inside refrigerators, toys, and other everyday items.
“These hazards have devastating consequences on the lives of the people who are trying to resume their lives,” said Luigi Pandolfi, an EU humanitarian expert who helps oversee the lifesaving work of dozens of aid organisations who operate inside Syria. “Demining and awareness activities are critical and need to be stepped up dramatically over the coming months and years.”
Preventing accidents is key as people return home to villages, which until recently were active battles zones. To help teach children and parents safe methods to identify and protect themselves against explosive hazards, the EU supports mine risk education across Syria in schools, community centres, and villages. In 2018, the EU funded education sessions for tens of thousands of people.
Aside from killing and maiming people, the explosive remnants also block economic development, prevent access to valuable agricultural land and obstruct the delivery of aid in a country where some 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
In one rural school in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate, a humanitarian aid group organises mine awareness classes for children who have just returned to their homes after having been displaced by fighting between Islamic State militants and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated militia fighting ISIS in eastern Syria.
Karima, one of the instructors, holds up photos of some of the most common types of improvised explosive devices in the area.
“What do you do if we find something strange on the ground?” she asks the class.
“We must tell our parents or a grown-up what we found,” eight-year-old Ghossun replies. “We shouldn’t touch it.”
“And we cannot play in an area that we don’t know,” her classmate Aisha adds. “It can be very dangerous.”
The sheer volume of explosive hazards — incendiary bombs and cluster munitions dropped from the air, artillery projectiles, mortars, rockets, landmines, and improvised explosive devices — has left a deadly legacy that will haunt Syria for many years to come. Despite mine clearance operations, the mapping of dangerous areas and education, accidents are unfortunately common, Karima says as her session ends.
“I would be devastated if my child would fall victim to one of these devices,” she says. “Whenever I finish one of these classes, I feel proud to have helped the children understand how to protect themselves. After all, it is our responsibility to the younger generation.”