IRAQ: Saving lives of returnees in Dohuk

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Unexploded cluster munitions continue to pose a lethal threat to countless communities across Iraq. MAG's recent work in Surka village, in the North-west governorate of Dohuk, cleared bomblets that were posing the threat of death or injury long after they were dropped.

During the 1970s and '80s families were forced from their homes in Surka by conflict and regime-based violence. The village was destroyed and converted into a military camp by the Iraqi army, with large areas used to store weapons and ammunition.

Then in 1991, the camp itself was annihilated during an aerial bombardment by coalition forces to support the Kurdish uprising, during which thousands of cluster bombs were dropped.

For years after, the area remained unused due to the threat from contamination, including cluster munitions that remained on the surface after failing to explode on impact.

In 2003, the displaced population of Surka, who for years had sought refuge in Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, were forced to move again due to the worsening security situation and increasing violence in those areas.

Many began to return to Surka, but cluster munitions and other dangerous remnants of conflict blocked important agricultural land that was needed urgently for farming and grazing animals.

"We returned to our village to farm the land and graze the animals, but even that has been very difficult and dangerous because of those remnants of war," said Mr Khidr Alyas [pictured above], a farmer who had returned to Surka from Mosul.

"Forty families have returned to the village and more people are returning. We need more farmland to be cleared so we can make our living."

During February and March, MAG safely removed and destroyed 146 hazardous items that posed an immediate threat to the villagers. Further operations in April saw the clearance of Goze Gundi minefield and the destruction of the remaining cluster munitions, making 45,600 square metres of land safe for the future use by 300 local people.

Mr Kamel Murad, Surka village leader, said: "I'm very grateful to MAG for providing the information for the villagers on how to avoid those deadly weapons and I'm happy that MAG team cleared Goze Gundi. This will support many families in generating their income."

The land cleared by MAG was handed back to the community in the first week of May.

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How MAG worked in Surka village:

As part of a project funded by Irish Aid, a MAG Community Liaison (CL) team deployed to Surka in February. In line with MAG's holistic approach, CL teams are the first to visit a village in order to present MAG and what it can do to support the community, as well as to gather information on how the community is affected by mine and unexploded ordnance contamination.

The CL team conducted an assessment survey, gathering crucial information about contamination in the area and delivering emergency Mine Risk Education (MRE), reducing the immediate threat to life and limb.

The results of the survey showed that contamination from cluster munitions and other dangerous remnants of conflict was blocking important agricultural land that was needed urgently for farming and grazing animals.

Further technical investigations showed that the area was highly contaminated with unexploded BLU-97 cluster munitions. The CL team reported these findings back to MAG's operations base in Dohuk.

Shortly after, a MAG Conventional Weapons Destruction (CWD) response team (funded by the US Department of State's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement) deployed to the village. The team safely removed and destroyed 146 hazardous items identified by the CL team.

Following the response by the CWD teams and further investigation by the CL team, a Mine Action Team (funded by Irish Aid) deployed to the village in April, to undertake further clearance operations and safely remove and destroy the remaining cluster munitions.

Reporting by Zana Kaka, MAG Iraq Deputy Programme Officer, and MAG Iraq's Community Liaison Team 10. Photo by MAG Iraq.