UNITED NATIONS (IPS): Land mines are not the only type of explosive devices that families returning home after conflicts risk stumbling across, representatives from the UN’s Mine Action Service (UNMAS) told journalists here Monday.

“There is a lot of stigma about using mines now – the real issue is the just the explosive detritus of conflict,” said Paul Heslop, UNMAS chief of program planning on the International Day for Mine Awareness. This detritus, said Heslop, includes unexploded hand grenades, rockets, bombs, shells, cluster munitions, and improvised explosive devices.

This is why UNMAS does not discriminate when removing unexploded ordinances in conflict and post-conflict zones, said Agnes Marcaillou, director of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS). For UNMAS, it doesn’t matter if the explosive device is a land mine or an improvised explosive device inside a soda can, she said.

Marcaillou described how in Iraq people are returning home to find their homes deliberately booby-trapped. “In Iraq if you decide to return to your home after Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has left your village you are likely to find your doors, your windows, everything will be booby trapped,” she said.

Syrian families who return home are faced with “a land littered with unexploded bombs and cluster munitions that might kill (them) or (their) children today, or perhaps tomorrow,” she said.

While some of these devices are sometimes described as improvised or homemade, they are actually sophisticated systems designed to make sure that people are not safe to return home even after the fighting has ended, said Marcaillou.

Marcaillou told journalists that it is essential that mine action is incorporated into the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit to be held in Istanbul in May. If not, it will be impossible to meet the cost of clearing mines and other unexploded devices from Iraq and Syria, which, she said, could exceed 100 million dollars. However Marcaillou said that the cost of removing the unexploded weapons was small in comparison to the amount spent on purchasing bombs and fighter jets. “There is money to clean up what money paid to do,” she said.

And while progress has been made on mine clearance, including in some of the worst affected countries such as Afghanistan and Cambodia, the international community should not yet see the problem as solved, said Heslop.

For example, in Afghanistan, he said, the number of deaths from mines has dropped from hundreds per month down to five or six, yet other types of unexploded ordinances still cause about 70 deaths per month.

And despite decades of clearing land mines from Cambodia, Heslop said that making Cambodia mine free could still take another decade, with cluster munitions posing a new challenge as people move to areas which haven’t yet been cleared.

In a statement issued to mark the International Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that he was “particularly concerned about the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”

However Ban also noted that even in extremely challenging contexts such as Syria progress is being made on removing mines. Since August 2015, some 14 tonnes of unexploded ordnance have been destroyed in Syria, he said.


(Cover photo credit: Mines Advisory Group)