Bomb explosions, political instability challenge iMMAP's resolve

from Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation
Published on 14 Jun 2006
Iraq Landmine Survey Suspended Due to Near-Death Explosion

Iraq. Sudan. The Democratic Republic of Congo. Afghanistan. In 2006 VVAF's Information Management and Mine Action Programs (iMMAP) staff are active in some of the most dangerous places in the world, overcoming setbacks to carry out their critical humanitarian work.

As the violence continues, political instability increases, and the risks of working in these environments heighten. Nevertheless, iMMAP continues involvement in dangerous areas. These war-torn countries desperately need the landmine surveys, map products, and information management iMMAP provides, and iMMAP adapts to these adverse situations.

"It is important we go into these areas partly because there are so few non-governmental organizations that are willing to," said Bill Barron, iMMAP Program Director. "Our employees put themselves at risk every day."

A series of dangerous incidents in recent weeks involving iMMAP field personnel underlines the bravery the organization's members show in providing assistance in hazardous, unstable environments. The life-threatening events also make painfully clear the dangers that accompany the mine action and emergency relief field.

Improvised Explosive Devices: A Menace to U.S. Troops, Iraqi Populations

An iMMAP Iraq Landmine Impact Survey (LIS) Team Leader suffered second-degree burns from an explosion May 21 in northern Iraq. While traveling in a taxi, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonated nearby, severely injuring the iMMAP team member and one of his medical colleagues. Two unknown passengers in the same taxi were killed by the blast.

"He wasn't targeted because he was part of VVAF," said Program Officer Tara Aziz. "He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, a common story in Iraq these days."

IEDs are one of the greatest dangers to United States troops stationed in Iraq, and are a threat to the entire population there, both active participants in the war and innocent bystanders. The bombs are usually constructed from artillery or mortar shells, landmines, or grenades. Insurgents remotely detonate the bombs using common electronic devices such as cellular telephones and garage door openers.

Following the explosion the VVAF employee and his colleague were immediately transported to a United States Army hospital. He faces a long recovery.

In response, iMMAP has suspended the Iraq LIS until the security situation takes a turn for the better. "It's become too violent," said Aziz. "We can't lose staff." But despite these actions, the casualties and injuries still remain. "He's okay. He's still in the hospital, although some of his burns are not healing, and may never fully heal."

The suspension of the project reflects the danger and importance of this work. To date the LIS has been a tremendous success, with almost 12,000 communities visited.

"They've visited more communities in Iraq than any other organization we're aware of, including all the civilian contractors," said Senior Program Officer Charles Conley.

Political Instability in DRC Forces iMMAP to Evacuate Gbadolite

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) iMMAP was recently forced to evacuate the city of Gbadolite, the site of its landmine survey headquarters, due to security concerns stemming from an incident involving a mob of demobolized militia fighters. On May 27, a mob of approximately 150 demobilized soldiers surrounded a United Nations compound. Armed with machetes and spears the demonstrators demanded several months of overdue payment.

The iMMAP office in DRC was located nearby the same compound. Fearful that iMMAP staff could be targeted by the mob in confusion, iMMAP decided to evacuate Gbadolite and move to the city of Gemena (located in the same province of Equateur) on May 28.

"We were worried they would be kidnapped and held hostage, or attacked by the mob," said Program officer Tara Aziz.

Congolese staff were able to transport iMMAP vehicles and equipment, but the team will need to adjust to conditions in Gemena. "They're trying their best to re-establish the office," said Aziz. "It's much more difficult there. There's no water or electricity."

Nevertheless, the survey will continue. Fully staffed and trained, the teams began surveying based from Gemena on June 6.

Close Call: iMMAP Specialist in Afghanistan Nearly Targeted by Suicide Car Bomb

iMMAP information specialist Dave Armitt was nearly injured by a suicide car bomber in Kandahar, Afghanistan on May 17, the first of a series of violence incidents affecting his deployment in Kabul. The attackers targeted the Toyota Landcruisers of a United Nations convoy transporting Armitt soon after he had been dropped off at Kandahar Airport.

"I am counting my lucky stars," said Armitt. "The armored vehicles saved the drivers. Both were injured, but not seriously."

The cars, painted generic white with no markings, were driven by local Afghans. On their way back to the AMAC Kandahar office, a suicide bomber driving a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) smashed into one of the land cruisers and detonated explosives. BBC News reported the incident, citing strong support for the Taleban in Kandahar.

Other recent violent incidents in Afghanistan have also caused concern for iMMAP and Armitt. On May 21 while working in the iMMAP office in Kabul Armitt heard an explosion outside on the road. A suicide bomber detonated explosives about 400 meters from an American base, killing five people, including a young child. The incident, reported by BBC News to be the first suicide bomb attack in Kabul this year, occurred on the road from Kabul to Jalalabad.

On May 29 a United Nations convoy collided with a civilian vehicle outside Kabul, inciting a riot during which gunshots were fired. United Nations staff members were evacuated from the area, but the riot continued, converging on a nearby police station. The Mine Action Center for Afghanistan was forced to move employees to safe locations. During the riot six people were killed and approximately 50 injured.

Armitt remains in Kabul, but these three violent incidents in the past two weeks cause substantial concern for iMMAP and VVAF.

"Sometimes projects must be halted when the environment becomes too dangerous and unstable," said VVAF Vice President Joe Donahue. "The safety of our personnel is a paramount concern."

"They're out doing their work, and these dangers are often stalking us while working in unstable environments," said Conley. "Their work is truly invaluable."